September 13-20, 2004

IJC Twelfth Biennial Report launches review of Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement

The International Joint Commission's Twelfth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality, released last week, not only addresses the leading issues affecting the health and vitality of the Great Lakes, it triggers the official review by Canada and the United States of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The current Agreement, signed in 1978 and amended in 1987, has not been updated or changed in more than 17 years.

In its assessment of the progress being made under the Agreement, the Commission does not report on all subjects of importance to the Great Lakes. Rather, it analyzes five specific issues and makes recommendations aimed at helping achieve the Agreement's goals of physical, biological and chemical integrity leading to an ecosystem approach to ecological integrity. The issues addressed in the report include: the effects of urbanization on the lakes; threats associated with alien invasive species; pathogens and disease bearing microorganisms in drinking water sources; chemical contamination, methyl mercury and human health; and the recent ecological changes taking place in Lake Erie.

Impacts of urban growth

The need to plan and manage urban growth and mitigate its impact on the natural environment, particularly on urban watersheds and nearshore areas, is one of the major challenges in restoring and maintaining the physical integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem. In the Commission's view, the fundamental question to be addressed by governments is whether the sum of their policies, programs and management efforts are sufficient to protect water quality from the impact of continued expansion of the major urban areas in the Great Lakes basin. This question is best answered binationally at the lake basin level, with participants drawn from all three levels of government, municipal, state/ provincial, and federal.

The report summarizes the main sources of water pollution from urban areas, including:

*treated effluents from sewage treatment plants and untreated effluents that bypass these facilities;

*treated and untreated stormwater runoff;

*combined sewer overflows that carry a mixture of untreated sewage and storm water;

*air emissions from incidental and accidental releases and vehicles; and

*groundwater discharges.

It also outlines the impact of urban development on groundwater and discusses the potential impacts of climatechange on groundwater and surface water quality.

In Canada and the U.S., land use decisions are generally considered the exclusive domain of local government. However, local decisions cannot be isolated from other responsibilities at the state/ provincial, and federal levels. Governments need to improve their institutional capacity to co-ordinate and integrate roles, responsibilities and decisions between and among all levels. The IJC recommends that the two governments take binational actions to address the impact of urban land use on Great Lakes water quality by:

*evaluating under what circumstances best management practices are effective in managing urban runoff;

*ensuring that information on urban best management practices reaches local authorities and implementers; and

*assessing the cumulative effects of management actions to minimize the impacts of urbanization on the Great Lakes, using the Lake Erie basin as an example.

Aquatic invasive species

By current estimates, more than 170 non-indigenous fish, invertebrates, plants, algae, protozoa and parasites species have entered the Great Lakes from all pathways. Scientists predict that one new non-indigenous species will be discovered in the lakes about every eight months. The impact of introduced species already in the system serve as harbingers of the economic and environmental costs to come if this crucial threat is not controlled. During the past two years, the Canadian and U.S. governments have discussed nine possible actions to address ecological and economic costs of aquatic invasive species; these are outlined in the report.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) standards for ballast water discharge will become effective 12 months after ratification by 30 member states, representing 35% of the world's merchant shipping tonnage. Even under the best scenarios, provisions of the Convention could take at least five to eight years to come into full force. Given the current rate of introduction, the Commission says another eight to 12 non-indigenous species could be introduced into the Great Lakes during that time. Any one of these new invaders could prove to be as ecologically and economically destructive as those already in the system, if not more so.

The provisions of the IMO Convention recognize the need for regional co-operation, stating that a party may individually, or jointly with other parties, impose additional measures to prevent, reduce or eliminate the transfer of harmful aquatic organisms and pathogens through ships' ballast water and sediment. The Commission also remains concerned about pathways other than ballast water, citing as an example the threat posed by Asian carp entering the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

A binational, regional plan is essential if there is to be any hope of stopping this influx before the Convention is ratified and implemented, states the Commission. Such a regional, co-operative plan should include a biologically protective standard for all the Great Lakes and should require technology certification to achieve the standard. It will also require enhanced measures of ballast management for ships carrying residual ballast water and sediment. Other program elements would include promotion of continuing regional co-operation and development of measures to ensure compliance.

The report recommends that Canada implement its National Action Plan to address the threat of aquatic invasive species and finalize mandatory ballast water management practices, and that the U.S. reauthorize its National Invasive Species Act of 1996 through passage of the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act.

Both governments, says the Commission, should ratify and implement the IMO's Convention for the Control and Management of Ships' Ballast Water and Sediments, and pursue stringent measures and rapid timelines. Finally, the report urges the governments to issue the IJC a reference authorizing it to:

*help determine the most effective ways to co-ordinate binational prevention efforts and harmonize national plans, particularly those dealing with residual ballast water and sediment in ballast tanks;

*evaluate the effectiveness of current institutional arrangements;

*assist with the establishment of a regional standard stronger than the minimum required by the IMO Convention;

*ensure that economic analyses carried out for projects with potential environmental effects include the environmental and societal costs of invasive species control, damage, and mitigation, and the costs and benefits of prevention measures; and

* assist with public education and communications.

Impact of pathogens

The Commission remains concerned about microbial pollution in the Great Lakes basin. While major problems occur infrequently, research suggests these outbreaks are only a fraction of the actual number of gastrointestinal illnesses caused by microbial pollution each year.

The report outlines a number of potential sources of gastrointestinal pathogens that find their way into recreational and drinking water, among them pet wastes, waste from land-based sludge applications, manure storage piles, and leaking septic tanks. When multiple, adjacent communities use waterways, as is the situation for most of the Canadian and U.S. Great Lakes region, sewage overflows can put downstream communities at risk from high concentrations of microbial pollution.

The Commission further notes that even when waterborne illness occurs, detection can be difficult. The flu-like symptoms may be mistaken for food poisoning rather than ingestion of contaminated water. As a result, instances of disease caused by pathogens in water are probably under-reported to public health officials.

An additional concern relates to the widespread and largely unregulated use of antibiotics in agriculture. Some experts believe that this, coupled with the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant pathogens found in nature, may present the greatest risk to the aquatic environment and to public health. If antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect humans, finding appropriate remedies will present a far tougher challenge to physicians.

The report points out that systems for waste collection and water treatment and distribution around the Great Lakes are largely inadequate or in decline. Increasing pressures from agriculture (including large-scale animal operations), development, industry, population growth, and urban expansion will require co-ordinated actions by all those responsible for managing watersheds and water resources to fully protect ecosystem and public health.

The Commission stresses the importance of viewing watersheds as the basic planning units and calls for co-ordination among jurisdictions. It recommends that all levels of governments create and implement co-ordinated planning actions to fully protect drinking water sources from these increased pressures.

Chemical integrity: mercury

The chemical integrity of the Great Lakes is dynamic, with the lakes' waters continuously changing through the addition, interaction, and loss of both natural and man-made substances. Considerable uncertainty remains concerning the chemical integrity of the Great Lakes and the impacts of various chemicals, and combinations of chemicals, on the basin's human and other inhabitants, says the report.

Mercury provides a case study for chemical integrity. Much is known about mercury's toxic effects, at higher doses, and there is a growing body of knowledge concerning effects at lower doses. At sufficient levels of accumulation of methyl mercury compounds, toxic effects occur, including damage to brain and nerve tissue (neurotoxicity) and to kidneys (nephrotoxicity).

The Commission recognizes that both governments are currently considering proposals for further reductions in mercury emissions and encourages them to adopt and implement initiatives that will further reduce the release of mercury to the environment, including atmospheric emissions.

The effects of past mercury emissions, compounded by continuing emissions, will remain an issue for decades to come, and the associated risks must be effectively communicated. While both governments have compiled and disseminated fish advisories, it is still difficult to reach those most at risk to help them make changes in behavior which would reduce that risk.

The report further notes that there are still significant gaps in knowledge about the processes by which mercury moves from source to water body, to fish and wildlife, to humans, and about the effects of low doses of mercury on human health. Scientists continue to explore plausible connections and build on the knowledge base. In addition to general studies of this nature, specific focused studies on mercury deposition and its effects on the Great Lakes are required.

The Commission recommends that Canada and the U.S., in conjunction with provincial and state agencies and institutions:

*undertake retrospective and prospective epidemiological studies, in Areas of Concern and other pertinent locations of the Great Lakes basin, to better understand potential neuro-developmental effects associated with methyl mercury and PCB;

*make fish advisories clear, simple, and consistent, and ensure that they are reaching the intended audiences; and

*select and promptly implement programs in both Canada and the U.S. to substantially reduce the deposition of mercury in its reactive gaseous form in the Great Lakes region. The two governments should also pursue multi-lateral strategies for further control of this persistent toxic substance worldwide.

Lake Erie ecosystem

Environmental problems in the Lake Erie ecosystem function as early warning signals for the other Great Lakes. As the shallowest of the lakes, Lake Erie has the shortest water retention time (less than three years). At the same time, it also has the largest watershed relative to its size, the highest human population density, the most farmland, and the largest number of major cities. These factors converge to make Erie the Great Lake where ecological disruption often shows up first. Developing a detailed understanding of ecological disruption symptoms on Lake Erie may help avoid similar problems on the other Great Lakes, says the report.

It goes on to note that rapid ecological changes are in fact occurring in the Lake Erie ecosystem, some as puzzling as they are troubling. Trends in Lake Erie water and ecosystem quality since the early 1990s are not well understood, with recent research indicating simultaneously positive and negative trends in water and ecosystem quality. Considerable year-to-year variations in scientific observations also make it difficult to determine cause-and-effect links which could guide resource management and policy decision-making. The Biennial Report includes nine detailed examples.

Because of their complex nature, addressing the overlapping and interacting issues affecting Lake Erie today requires a greater level of binational communication and co-operation than ever before. Significant information gaps remain, making it difficult for policymakers to determine what actions can and should be taken to improve the lake's ecological integrity.

Because the ecosystem is undergoing dynamic changes, scientists need to conduct more comprehensive biological investigations, including the effects of aquatic invasive species, climate change and other factors, as well as improve measurements of phosphorus loading. These investigations must clarify whether observed environmental changes result from increased phosphorus loadings from outside the lake or as a result of changes in phosphorus cycling within the lake, which could be due to zebra and quagga mussels, environmental changes, or other factors.

Accordingly, the IJC says the governments should:

*improve phosphorus monitoring from point and nonpoint sources to determine relative contributions of external loadings versus internal cycling;

*improve research to resolve questions about cause-and-effect links between observed ecosystem changes and various stressors. The complexity of this issue requires a collaborative research approach between those associated with water quality and fisheries, including links to watershed land use issues; and

*insure that these research and monitoring improvements employ an ecological modeling framework that enables the most cost-effective and ecologically meaningful programs to be developed and implemented. Doing so would provide the greatest value to resource management and policy.

The Commission adds that the two governments should also develop a Great Lakes ecological observation and forecast network. Such a system of automated buoys and remote sensors would supplement traditional shipboard and shore-based sampling to provide simultaneous records at multiple locations, enable observation of large-scale patterns, test models and predictions, and increase understanding of ecosystem and species variability.

The report notes that the two governments initiated a comprehensive study of the lake in 2002, with a large portion of the work co-ordinated and communicated through the Lake Erie Millennium Network. The Commission recommends that Governments continue to fund binational research efforts begun in 2002 and 2003 to better understand changes in the Lake Erie ecosystem. The institutional model provided by the Lake Erie Millennium Network should be considered for adaptation and adoption on the other Great Lakes to foster enhanced binational co-operation and communication.

The Twelfth Biennial Report may be obtained on the IJC Web site, Copies in print or CD format are available free of charge in English or French from the IJC's Great Lakes Regional Office, 100 Ouellette Ave, Suite 800, Windsor, Ont N9A 6T3, 519/257-6733, E-mail More information is available from Jennifer Day of the IJC's Windsor office, 519/257-6733, or Nick Heisler of the Ottawa office, 613/992-8367.

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