State of the Great Lakes

Is More of the Same Good Enough for the Great Lakes?

Give the U.S. EPA and its Canadian counterpart points for recycling. When they released the 2022 State of the Great Lakes report last week, they offered the same characterization as in previous reports: overall, the Great Lakes are fair and unchanging.

Merriam-Webster defines “fair” as ‘not very good or very bad: of average or acceptable quality.”

Is “not very good or very bad” what we want for the Great Lakes?  

Looking at the five lakes individually, the U.S. and Canadian governments grade Superior and Huron good, Michigan and Ontario fair, and Erie poor. Is this what we want?

That we have become accustomed to such evaluations of the conditions of the Great Lakes is unacceptable. That we are making little progress toward the goal of fully healthy lakes is deplorable.

In this 50th anniversary year of the signing of the original Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement by President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, it is appropriate to look at where we’ve been and where we’re going.

While the governments boast of their robust programs to protect and restore the lakes, they typically gloss over the trouble spots. The State of the Great Lakes report is the closest they come to accountability. In this report, they acknowledge that only two of nine indicators (beaches and fish consumption) show improvement. The other seven are unchanging and one, invasive species, is poor.

What are the reasons for treading water like this? The fundamental facts are that correcting past mistakes will cost taxpayers a fortune – and steering a new course for the future requires political will. That will is needed if we hope to keep new toxic chemicals out of the lakes, protect key habitats from exploitation, and once and for all control invasive species.

If the political will is lacking, it is not the fault of governments alone. We who live among the lakes are also conflicted. We want them to be healthy and beautiful yet we are not willing to make the changes that would enable this to happen.

There is plenty of talk in our region about the need for sustainability, a way of approaching the environment and the lakes that avoids doing damage by changing the way we live. Primarily, changing practices that provide short-term benefits and long-term harm. Like the excess fertilization on farms in the Lake Erie watershed, which fosters algae blooms that are reminiscent of the “dead” Lake Erie of the 1960s.

Like the production and disposal of plastic products that break down into the billions of pieces fouling the lakes. We do not need to buy most of them. The industries that manufacture them will not retire them out of the goodness of their hearts, but they will respond to market forces.

Of course, there is good news. It is true that there are many dedicated public servants, university researchers, local governments and citizen advocates who are making extraordinary efforts to understand the science of the lakes and to respond constructively.

There is also the fact that the U.S. government is spending over $300 million in dedicated money every year to restore the Great Lakes. That is a legacy of the late Peter Wege, a Grand Rapids philanthropist who in 2004 organized advocates to petition Congress for dedicated funding to clean up toxic hotspots, restore habitat and protect water quality. This is praiseworthy.

But it’s clearly not enough, or not the right stuff. The health of the lakes is stagnating and that’s unacceptable.

If we truly want Great Lakes that are great and improving instead of fair and unchanging, we need to make some changes. We need a new kind of agriculture, a new kind of consumption, a new approach by industry. Where is this going to come from? It begins with the residents of the Great Lakes watershed.

The history of conservation and environmental protection over the last 150 years teaches us that citizens lead and politicians follow. So it is time for us to lead by example and by engagement with our government processes, and to hold those who degrade the Great Lakes accountable.

Our job is to look at ways we can live among these lakes in harmony and to pressure our governments and institutions to do the same. Unless that happens, we are likely to see the same reports every three years indefinitely.

And is that what we want for the Great Lakes?


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