Great Challenges Facing The Great Lakes

KirkwoodWater is the lifeblood of our region, defining our culture, economy and way of life. The health of the Great Lakes, however, is at risk. Systemic ecosystem threats include microbead plastics, invasive species, urban and rural runoff, shoreline development, oil transport and production, and water diversions and exports. And global pressures are growing: by 2030, water demand worldwide is expected to exceed supply by over 40 percent. As stewards of one-fifth of the planet’s fresh surface water, here are a few of the issues we face.

Pipelines Under The Great Lakes

Two 62-year-old pipelines known as “Line 5” lie on the bed of Lake Michigan beneath the Straits of Mackinac, and transport nearly 23 million gallons of oil every day. Line 5 entered the public consciousness when another pipeline owned by the same operator – Canadian company Enbridge – ruptured in 2010, spilling a million gallons of heavy tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River.

In the 1950s, a five-mile private pipeline across the bottom of the Great Lakes was an engineering breakthrough, but it didn’t trigger the kind of public scrutiny we’d expect today. Even then, however, Michigan recognized its ongoing right and duty to protect the waters of the Great Lakes on behalf of the citizenry. Scientists now know that Line 5 is in the worst possible location for an oil spill anywhere in the Great Lakes. And recent oil spills off Santa Barbara, in the Gulf of Mexico, and into the Yellowstone River suggest how devastating a spill would be for the waters, wildlife, businesses, and communities of the Great Lakes. They also undermine pipeline operators’ reassurances to the government about “extremely unlikely” spill risks, safe operation and state-of-the-art monitoring.

A Task Force commissioned by Governor Rick Snyder will soon issue recommendations relevant to the future of Line 5, and many fundamental questions regarding risk and remediation loom unanswered. What are the alternative options for safe oil pipeline transport, state energy needs, pipeline corrosion, integrity, safety, worst-case scenario, insurance requirements and end-of-life plans? The citizens of Michigan anxiously await the Task Force’s recommendations – but as long as oil flows under the Straits, the risk of catastrophic damage will persist.

Toxic Algal Blooms

Last summer toxic algal blooms closed beaches, shut down Toledo’s public drinking water system, created “dead zones” in Lake Erie, and left more than 400,000 Ohioans and 30,000 Michiganders without safe drinking water for three days. We can stop this threat not only in Lake Erie but also in Saginaw Bay, Green Bay and elsewhere, by drastically reducing the phosphorus runoff – primarily from municipal and agricultural sources – that causes these blooms. But doing so will require strong political will in the U.S. and Canada, creative solutions to reduce phosphorus by 46 percent, cooperation from cities and from farming communities and a public commitment from all stakeholders to keep our living lakes alive.

Proof that things are heading in the right direction: Leaders from Michigan, Ohio and Ontario just signed an agreement to work toward a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus runoff by 2025, with an interim goal of 20 percent by 2020.

Asian Carp Invaders

The Great Lakes are no strangers to invasive species, but Asian carp present unprecedented challenges to the entire Great Lakes Basin. With no natural predators, this species has the potential to disrupt the Lakes’ entire food chain – and the region’s $7 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry.

We must remain vigilant and study, fund and implement effective strategies to prevent the Asian carp’s intrusion. Current strategies include physical barriers, electric barriers, carbon dioxide bubble screens, underwater sound canons and pheromones. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying the feasibility of hydrologically separating the Mississippi and Great Lakes Basins, but with Asian carp DNA already found in some Great Lakes waterways, will decisive action be taken in time to stop the invasion?

Our Great Lakes face great and urgent challenges. But with cooperation from all stakeholders and coordinated efforts from each of the Great Lakes states, these are challenges we can overcome. And overcome them we must: our economy, our environment, our health, and our legacy depend on it.

Liz Kirkwood is executive director of For Love of Water (FLOW), a Great Lakes water law and policy center based in Traverse City.