Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on October 21, 2011 (updated: February 17, 2015)

How climate change is affecting the Great Lakes

Dr. Elaine MacDonaldScientist

Last week, several Ecojustice colleagues and I travelled to Detroit for Great Lakes Week. The event united representatives from U.S. and Canadian governments along with public and private groups. We went to learn about solutions to the lakes’ woes.

The Great Lakes are the world’s largest surface freshwater system and include Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. More than 35 million people in the U.S. and Canada rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. The lakes also support fishing, shipping and other industries.

It is well known that the Great Lakes have suffered under the stress of excessive pollution, invasive species and industrial development. Binational efforts to restore the Great Lakes to their former glory have yielded some improvements over the past few decades. But climate change, as we heard from former U.S. vice-president Al Gore during the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement biennial meeting, may change all that.

Gore told us how climate change is warming the water and bringing more frequent heavy rainfall, aggravating existing problems in the Great Lakes. The intensity of these storms overwhelms our municipal infrastructure, leading to increased overflows that spill sewage and other contaminants into our water. Intense storms also lead to greater runoff, which carries fertilizers containing phosphorus into the Great Lakes. We’re beginning to see the impacts. A deadly green goo has formed on parts on Lake Erie and is visible from space.

What does this mean?

The green goo is an enormous and smelly algal bloom containing harmful blue green algae. It produces multiple toxins, including some that are unsafe for animals, including fish and people. Some wildlife and pets have died after ingesting the algae. When the algae breaks down, it releases its toxin into the water and potentially into our drinking water. Floating like a florescent green mat on the water, the algae also collects on the shoreline in stinking heaps and makes the beach a dangerous place to walk your dog or let your children play. It also sucks oxygen out of the water, making it impossible for fish to survive and harming one of the world’s best areas for freshwater fishing.

Making progress

One thing we heard a lot about at Great Lakes Week was U.S. efforts to restore the Great Lakes. U.S. President Barack Obama set aside US$350-million for Great Lakes clean up in 2012 and budgeted US$225-million this year. Unfortunately, no similar funding announcements have come from Canada’s federal government.

What’s Ecojustice doing?

Ecojustice has worked diligently on Great Lakes issues for many years, including sewage overflows and the use of green infrastructure to reduce runoff, water conservation, industrial wastewater regulation, air pollution discharges and invasive species prevention.

Most recently we have participated in the long and drawn-out review of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a 1972 binational plan signed by Canada and the U.S. that sought to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

We share the agreement’s goal for the Great Lakes but feel the review failed to include meaningful public consultation, dismissed important questions and provided little information about proposed changes to the agreement. Based on the little information available, we are concerned the new agreement won’t live up to the needs of the Great Lakes.

As we wait for action from the Canadian government, Al Gore reminds us that we have little time to waste as the effects of our changing climate compound the problems the Great Lakes face.


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