Public Support for Great Lakes Protection is Strong, But Surveyed Residents Say Lakes in Poor Shape


A recently-released survey of residents of the Great Lakes watershed reveals strong support for government funding and actions to protect the Lakes, but also suggests the public believes the lakes are not in good shape.

Sponsored by the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB), which is appointed by the International Joint Commission, the survey found that 90 percent of 2021 randomized phone poll respondents and 95 percent of online poll respondents believe it is important to protect the Great Lakes.

The top three threats to the health of the Great Lakes named by phone poll respondents were:

  • Invasive species, 15 percent
  • Pollution in general, 13 percent
  • Industrial pollution/waste, 11 percent

As was true in polls administered by WQB in 2015 and 2018, “don’t know” was one of the leading answers when phone poll respondents were asked to name, on their own initiative, threats to the Great Lakes or waters that feed into the Great Lakes. The good news is that the proportion of respondents giving this answer was down by 9 percent from 2018.

The poll suggested that residents of the Great Lakes watershed have mixed to unfavorable opinions about the health of the Lakes and their overall water quality trend. Twenty-nine percent called the condition of the Lakes good or very good, 33 percent poor or very poor, and 18 percent neutral (neither poor nor good). Two in 10 did not know. Those most connected with Michigan, Erie and Ontario rated them poorest, while Superior and Huron scored the best. 

Thirty percent of the poll respondents believe the health of the Great Lakes is deteriorating while 18 percent believe it is improving. Thirty-three percent said it has stayed about the same.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada calls for the Lakes to be safe for swimming, drinking and fishing. Forty percent of respondents said swimming is safe or very safe, but 30 percent called it very unsafe or not safe. The margin for drinking water was 36 percent very unsafe or not safe and only 29 percent safe or very safe. For consuming fish, 38 percent said it is very unsafe or not safe, and only 28 percent safe or very safe.

Additional targets were set for participation by First Nation, Métis and Tribal Nation members, assuring a total of 500 respondents. When asked how they engage culturally with the Great Lakes, indigenous peoples replied: fishing/ice fishing (29 percent), canoeing/kayaking/wind surfing/paddleboard (13 percent) and swimming/beach visits (12 percent.) When asked whether any of the ways they engage with the lakes are threatened or they are no longer able to participate in them because of the poor health and water quality of the lakes, 49 percent of indigenous respondents said yes and 45 percent said no.

The WQB gathered 4,550 responses from a traditional randomized phone poll and 4,674 responses to questions from an online poll that repeated questions from the phone poll, modified questions from the phone poll, and posed new questions. The margin of error for the total 4,550 poll sample in the phone poll is ±1.5 percent.

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