DULUTH -- From zebra mussels, lamprey and spiny water fleas, to toxic algae blooms, warming waters and polluted runoff, the Great Lakes have been hammered over the past century by a host of what had been unexpected troubles.
So what’s next?
That’s exactly what a new effort hopes to predict under a plan by the International Joint Commission, the U.S.-Canada authority that oversees Great Lakes issues.
The commission’s Great Lakes Science Advisory Board is working to develop a unified early warning system to “get ahead of the curve’’ on what problems the lakes may face in coming years and decades.
“While we can react to the problems we know about, it is a challenge to foresee the unknown threats before they become established problems,” Carol Miller, a Wayne State University professor and co-chair of the science advisory board, said in a statement. “The science and government management community recognizes the need to anticipate and address emerging threats, but we know there are challenges to coordinating and executing an early warning system for an ecosystem as large as the Great Lakes basin.”
The advisory board released its initial report on the effort Thursday.
Officials say they hope the early warning effort will involve government agencies on both sides of the border and experts on varied subjects from all of the states and provinces along the lakes.
“The current COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of how disruptive influences can affect large geographic areas,” said Lucinda Johnson, a member of the science advisory board and associate director of the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “The challenge is to create a framework that can function at the basin-wide scale, but also be relevant to smaller regions, or even communities.”
Several NRRI efforts already underway will help in those early warning efforts by regularly monitoring specific ecosystems and recording any changes that might raise red flags.
The advisory board listed toxic contamination and pollutants highest on the list of potential issues, followed by excessive nutrient/agricultural runoff, climate change, invasive species in general and Asian carp specifically, budget cuts for federal programs and ballast water control as their top concerns.
Some other topics that have been high on the public’s list of concerns, like the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline and a proposed Ontario nuclear plant, were listed as lower concerns by the experts.
Had an early warning system been in place before zebra and quagga mussels arrived in the ballast of ships to the Great Lakes in the 1980s and 1990s, and if government regulators had acted on the information, the invasion may have been prevented, said Michael Twiss, an advisory board member and chair of the biology department at Clarkson University in New York.
The International Joint Commission was established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to help Canada and the United States prevent and resolve disputes over the use of the waters the two countries share.
The commission’s responsibilities include reporting on progress made under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes and connecting waters. The Science Advisory Board provides advice on scientific matters to the commission.