Great Lakes Public Binational Forum - the "Cole's Notes"

By: Thaia Jones, Sierra Peel

Photo: Thaia with her brainstorming group, HOMES (acronym for the Great Lakes names), at the October GL Forum

The Great Lakes Forum was a hugely informative and intensive event, with two days of science and progress reports and one day for celebrating what we have and brainstorming next steps in saving and restoring the quality, biodiversity, beauty, and ‘Greatness’ of the Great Lakes system. The event is a joint conference of the Canadian and U.S. federal governments hosted by Environment and Climate Change Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Stemming from the 2012 revision of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the forum is to be held in a different location around the Great Lakes basin every three years.  Approximately 500 attended, including multiple government representatives, watershed management and other scientific agencies, and multiple NGOs from both countries.  First Nations and Metis groups were well represented among the speakers, including the Opening by Chief R. Stacey LaForme of the Mississaugas of the First Nations.  Many more individuals participated by remote link. 

So how are the Great Lakes doing?  Overall, their rating is Fair and Unchanging.  The lakes are rated on Status:  Good – Fair – Poor, and on Trends:  Improving – Deteriorating – Unchanging (or Unknown).  There are 9 trend indicators including Climate trends, Shoreline hardening, Habitat and Species, Invasive Species, Nutrients and Algae, Groundwater, Fish consumption, Drinking water, and Beaches.  There are 44 sub-indicators.

On an individual basis, Lake Superior’s status is Good, Huron, Michigan and Ontario are Fair, while Erie is Poor and Deteriorating. 

From this point the information becomes much more detailed and issue or location specific. For example, Habitat and Species data vary enormously.  Phytoplankton ratings in Superior and Ontario are Good, Michigan and Huron Poor and Deteriorating, with two varieties of invasive mussels damaging the ecosystem balance.  Shoreline hardening is a predictable problem for Lake Ontario, with 30% hardened and a rating of Poor and Deteriorating. On the other hand huge projects to restore Areas of Concern (AOCs) are taking place in various locations including Lake Ontario.  The Randle Reef project in Hamilton Harbour is starting to dredge and cap a gigantic area of industrial pollution to restore the harbour’s ecosystem, Toronto is creating 9.3 hectares of wetland from a dredge and cap project, and Port Hope’s radioactive waste should be completely dredged from their harbour by 2019, to name a few. 

Chemicals of anthropogenic origin are another issue of mixed gains - losses data.  So-called ‘legacy’ contaminants such as PCBs, Mercury, Dioxins, have reduced in fish by 80-90% since 1977.  Fish tumours have reduced.    But fish consumption is still rated as Fair and Unchanged to Improving, and new chemicals, particularly some pervasive fire retardants, are on the rise.

To address specific problems the issues have been assigned to several ‘Annexes’, to work on specialized solutions in their own area of expertise.  For example, Annex 6 addresses Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS).  Annex 6 has developed a Rapid Detection and Response network to block the arrival of additional acqatic invasives. Their plans include new technology such as the ongoing taking of huge numbers of water samples and testing for DNA fragments, to give early warnings of invasives even before they may have been spotted visually.  These techniques could potentially block such invasives as Asian Carp, one of the greatest current potential threats to the lakes and their river systems. 

The third day of the forum was a contrast to the first two, and a couple of participants at my work table said that it felt like the most significant day of the three.  It was a day to celebrate successes, reflect on the beauty and uniqueness of the Great Lakes, and brainstorm around next steps.  There were lots of accounts of endeavours on local levels:  a science teacher and her seventh graders in Buffalo work on a trout stocking project by growing fingerlings in the classroom, Ryerson’s green roof grows 10,000 pounds oi vegetables for the community, Georgian Bay Forever has an ambitious Phragmites Busters team, another cottager’s association manages 800 phosphorus monitoring sites annually, cities are starting to hire Resiliency Officers, , farmers are forming Farming Sustainability groups, and much more.

Each table then worked on developing a practical goal that would make a significant difference to Great Lakes work, and on developing a few practical steps toward implementation.  Though there was time to hear from only three of the tables, all three had developed some variation of the theme of spreading the word, and the work, from big multinational government and scientific research levels down through the ranks all the way to the 40 million citizens that live in the Great Lakes basin.  All three tables suggested a variation of establishing Great Lakes Day which would highlight a Great Lakes Water Walk or other locally designed event to honour and enjoy the amazing water system we have.

Building on our enthusiasm, our hosts closed the session by announcing a new initiative, to brand the Great Lakes with their own newly created logo, to promote the Great Lakes as a unique and precious world renowned entity, and, eventually, to build a special display centre and museum on the shore of one of the lakes, dedicated exclusively to the cause of ‘restoring the Great Lakes to Greatness!’

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