The State of the Great Lakes

Are the Great Lakes getting better or worse?

Any good scientist will tell you that’s a short question with a long answer, a simple question with a complicated answer.  And after a half hour of trying to explain it to you, they will have made it only a little simpler.  If you’re lucky.

So why is it so difficult to create a report card informing the interested public about the condition of the Great Lakes?

It’s not that people haven’t been trying.  Beginning in the 1990s, the many talented Great Lakes scientists and government agency staff presented data on so-called indicators at State of the Lake Ecosystem Conference (SOLEC) gatherings.  They offered up scores of measures including the health of benthic organisms, levels of chemical contaminants in herring gull eggs, the number of public beach closings, the quality of finished drinking water, phosphorus concentrations in water, toxic air pollutants deposited to water, and more.  Each indicator had a rationale, and most had solid data to back them up. 

But there were too many – over 100 at the beginning, and approximately 80 as late as 2011.  The array of likely and potential indicators was so large that it constituted an unfathomable Great Lakes report card.  How to simplify?

While the scientists wrestled with their data and discussed which indicators best told the story of Great Lakes health, taxpayers spent hundreds of millions of U.S. and Canadian dollars without lucid measures of whether they were paying for improvement.  Pressure was building.  And something happened.

Following the 2011 SOLEC, organizers created a highlights report to distill what the indicators said.  Organized around the three principal results sought by governments – protection of the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem – the report contained a clear verdict – to a point:

Water quality status is fair, and the trend is deteriorating.

Aquatic-dependent life status is fair, and the trend is deteriorating.

Landscapes and natural processes status is fair, and the trend is improving.

Two out of three indicator groupings deteriorating?  No rocket scientists were needed to explain that one.  But “aquatic-dependent life” is a term not many members of the public could define.

The highlights report put it this way: “The overall deteriorating trend for aquatic-dependent life is a result of decreasing preyfish populations, the declining population of Diporeia (a source of food for small fish), and the declining populations of many coastal wetland species. The food web has been drastically altered.”

As the statement suggests, judgments about a profoundly complex natural system are themselves complicated.  They address matters and species that generalists never consider.  It’s no wonder that the experts have resisted simplifying the ecosystem to an A through E elementary school style report card.

Although publicly available, the data and conclusions in the highlights report were not widely broadcast.  You had to look for them on the Internet. 

It was still not a report card, but governments and scientists were getting there.

The International Joint Commission devoted considerable time to prodding the Canadian and U.S. governments to narrow the list, recommending 16 indicators – but 41 “measures.”  One recommended indicator was persistent, bioaccumulative toxins in biota, but consisted of two measures, chemicals in whole fish and chemicals in herring gull eggs and bald eagles.  It was a step toward simplification, but it demonstrated that even when bringing the number of indicators down, governments and scientists would and perhaps could go only so far.

Dave Dempsey

A report card is still important.  Without it, the public would be left to draw conclusions based on hunches, anecdotes or a misleading façade.  For example, clearer water means healthier water, right?  Not necessarily. Invasive zebra mussels, by consuming plankton in the water column, clarified it, but no one seriously argued that invasive mussels were a good thing.  The plankton they consumed would ordinarily have fed native prey fish.

The report card effort, like almost everything else bearing on the health of the Great Lakes, pivots on how much work citizens are willing – or able – to do in understanding the waters they love.  We must meet the scientists halfway. 

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