The Great Lakes Basin: A U.S. National Treasure and Key Water Resource

Great Lakes from space

The Great Lakes Basin is a system of five different bodies of water and its tributaries along the northernmost tier of the United States, four of which border Canada. It includes Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that the Great Lakes are “the largest surface freshwater system on Earth and contain approximately 84 percent of North America’s surface fresh water and approximately 21 percent of the world’s supply.” As of 2012, it supplies water for more than 30 million Americans and is also an integral part of the U.S. economy.

Zug IslandNorth American manufacturing was attracted to the region. It had an expansive shipping industry connected to other major cities in the United States and Canada by canals and railroads, but other concerns grew in the 19th century as the American population moved West and industrialized. Shipping was a going concern with the region’s grain, ore, and other resources transported East. Ores were mined throughout the Lake Superior area.

Detroit served as the cradle of the American automotive industry; iron and steelworks were located adjacent. Chicago and its neighboring cities were the locus of meatpacking, among other industries. Cleveland was home to slaughterhouses and steel mills as well as varied manufacturers.

This lengthy industrial legacy resulted in rampant pollution. The region’s fisheries have traditionally served as a barometer, but the proverbial environmental last straw was the burning of the debris and chemicals floating in the Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, in 1969.

The region’s elected officials and residents have been working to clean up its waterways and reputation since. As The Cleveland Plain Dealer noted:

The Cuyahoga has come a long way from the waterway that a Cleveland mayor in the 1880s (Rensselaer R. Herrick) described as ‘a sewer that runs through the heart of the city.’ […] The Cuyahoga had burned as early as 1868 and a several times more before a 1952 fire caused more than $1.5 million in damage. […] But there’s little doubt of the effect that the last fire in 1969 had. Many credit it as being a catalyst for Congress to finally pass the Clean Water Act in 1972 and for the creation of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.

A Presidential Executive Order was signed in May 2004, recognizing the Great Lakes as a national treasure. The order also created the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, and ultimately created a national restoration and protection action plan published as “Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes,” which was released in 2005.

Then, in February 2009, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was created. About $6 million was earmarked by the government for those federal agencies that propose restoration work in federally protected areas, on tribal lands and in “Areas of Concern” in the Great Lakes Basin; and with the proviso that at least 20 unemployed people are hired to work on a grant-recipient project. This is reportedly the largest investment in the Great Lakes region in two decades and will address challenges, including toxic cleanup and protecting watersheds from pollutants in runoff.

There are also numerous research projects focused on the region, including several devoted to assessing water treatment.

In March 2012, researchers from the Calumet Water Institute at Purdue University and U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory released the results of a five-year study focused on Lake Michigan, finding that existing and emerging technologies sufficiently treat wastewater to meet the Great Lakes Initiative’s mercury discharge criteria of 1.3 parts per trillion (ppt). The specific technologies selected for testing were ultrafiltration, adsorption, and reactive filtration. The study also looked at these technologies’ ability to remove vanadium, selenium, and arsenic from wastewater as well.

The newest effort is the creation of an advisory board designed to help participating federal agencies, including the EPA, with information that will insure that the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement are met. The board will be selected in Summer 2012.

“The health of the Great Lakes affects the health of millions of people. These waters also play a vital role in the historical, cultural, educational and economic progress of this region,” said EPA Administrator and Task Force Chair Lisa P. Jackson. She added:

As we work to set a new standard of care for these waters, it’s important that we hear from experts and stakeholders who can strengthen our efforts. By providing insight from those who know these waters best, the Great Lakes Advisory Board will ensure the continued success of the work already underway, and help move us into the next phases of Great Lakes restoration and protection.

Image (top) by SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, used under its Creative Commons license.
Image (middle) by Angela Anderson-Cobb, used under its Creative Commons license.