Great Lakes Forever Fact Sheet: Contact: Jeffrey Potter, Biodiversity Project
Clean Water 608-250-9876, firstname.lastname@example.org
Roger Germann, Shedd Aquarium
The Great Lakes make up the world’s largest freshwater system. The Lakes are so big, they’ve often
been called the “Sweetwater Seas,” invoking an old sailor’s term for the valuable, drinkable nature of
the water. The shores of the Lakes sprouted industry and trade, providing the transportation and
drinking water for cities like Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Toronto. Everyday,
according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, more than 26 million people
directly rely on the water that the Great Lakes provide and another 11 million draw Great Lakes
groundwater resources. The Lakes have given us so much, but are beginning to show some wear.
Water quality in the Great Lakes and related inland waters is directly related to the amount of human
activity in the area. From the earliest forest and agricultural development, which left streams and
bays clogged with sawdust and topsoil, to urban and industrial development that dumped bacterial
and chemical waste directly into the Lakes, we cannot ignore the negative consequences of our
development activities. The water quality of the Great Lakes is not only important because of the
role the Lakes play as a source of drinking water and recreation, but also because they are at the
heart of our biological diversity, the ecosystem which sustains all life in the region.
For decades, Great Lakes water quality has been threatened by toxic pollutants such as mercury,
PCBs and agricultural pesticides. Some of these chemicals entered the aquatic system through direct
dumping, such as PCBs from paper mill waste, while others entered the system through indirect
pathways, such as field-water run-off and power plant air pollution. These contaminants can remain
in the system for decades and build up over time, increasing their danger by increasing their density
in our water. Threats to aquatic life become threats to human health when contaminated fish end up
on our tables. Mercury-contaminated fish in particular are of great concern – potentially causing
birth defects, high blood pressure, infertility and even brain damage.
Chemicals and other toxics that were dumped in the Great Lakes decades ago continue to threaten
the Lakes today as contaminated sediments. PCBs and DDT, both banned in the 1970’s, have
settled in the sand, clay, silt and organic matter found at the bottom of the Lakes and other regional
water bodies. Bottom feeders, such as tiny crustaceans and insect larvae, absorb these chemicals and
can pass them on to fish, waterfowl and eventually to humans through a process known as
“biomagnification.” When harbors and canals are dredged to improve shipping lanes, contaminated
sediments are often raised, adding expensive toxic waste disposal costs to projects and polluting
nearby beaches. Human health, the tourism economy and native biodiversity are all threatened by
persistent contaminated sediments.
Bacterial contaminations of the Great Lakes, from untreated sewage dumping and livestock facilities,
pose an equally dangerous threat to human and ecosystem health. Fecal coliform and e. coli bacteria
from animal feces, dirty diapers, failing septic systems and municipal sewer overflows can contribute
to higher levels of bacteria. The results are closed beaches and illness for boaters, swimmers and
others entering or consuming water from the Great Lakes. The increased organic matter (along with
phosphorus from lawn and agricultural fertilizers) in the waters also contributes to algae growth,
oxygen depletion in the water, and threatens Lakes aquatic life. Lake Erie, historically one of the
most polluted of the Great Lakes, currently suffers a growing 100-mile “dead zone,” where life in
the lake is nearly extinguished on an annual basis due to oxygen depletion.
According to a report from the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, about 62% of
municipalities in the region are in violation of the Clean Water Act’s standard on a major source of
Great Lakes pollution, combined sewer overflows. Many Great Lakes municipalities, including
Chicago, have older sewage systems that combine storm water collection with household and
industrial waste. During heavy rains, the system can overflow, causing raw sewage to be released
into the lakes. Storms can overwhelm the capacity of Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation
District (MWRD) to treat wastewater. Unfortunately, this situation causes the untreated water to
bypass normal sewage treatment and flows directly into the North Shore Channel, which eventually
ends up in Lake Michigan via the Wilmette Harbor Locks. This contributes to pollution levels
above and beyond the limits set in water quality laws.
However, Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is taking a significant step toward
solving sewage dumping with the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP,) also known as “Deep
Tunnel”. This underground tunnel system stores untreated wastewater during storms until the
district is able to treat it. Estimates suggest that more than 578 billion gallons of overflows have
been captured and conveyed to water treatment plants thanks to the tunnel system. According to
the Environmental Integrity Project report, Chicago waterways have seen an increase in both the
size of the fish population and the diversity of species present. Flooding has also been reduced in
the city and there have been fewer discharges to Lake Michigan. More than $2 billion has already
been spent on the project which is expected to be complete around 2015.
The Great Lakes are not only the heart of the region’s ecosystem, they are the heart of the region’s
economy. Tourism in the Great Lakes region generates billions of dollars each year, but
contaminated fish, closed beaches, and degraded scenic beauty caused by polluted waters threaten
this important revenue source. In 2003, Lake Michigan suffered its highest number of beach closings
ever, a potential economic indicator for the future of Great Lakes tourism if we don’t clean up our
waters. And finally, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 43
areas of concern in the Great Lakes basin, areas where continuous pollution and water quality
standards have not been met.
The situation is not good, but it’s not too late to make a difference. Water quality in the Great Lakes
and surrounding waters can be dramatically improved over time through several strategic local and
Existing regulations need to be respected, strengthened and enforced. International
agreements, like the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (www.on.ec.gc.ca/glwqa/facts-e.html)
between the United States and Canada, federal regulations, like the Clean Water Act
(www.epa.gov/watertrain/cwa/), and state and local water quality standards already exist. However,
if there is no enforcement, including strict clean-up requirements and other financial penalties,
polluters are unlikely to respect the importance of keeping our Great Lakes clean.
Additional funding should be allocated for clean up. Throughout the Great Lakes region,
industry, from paper mills to chemical plants, and agriculture, especially massive “factory farms,”
have used and polluted our waters with only limited accountability. If we’re going to restore the
Great Lakes and protect the health of our families, we must require financial support for toxic clean-
ups from those who have profited by using the very waters they have polluted.
Improved infrastructure for waste management. Over-burdened municipal sewage systems are
a major contributor to bacterial and parasitic pollution in the Great Lakes. During one week of
heavy rainfall during the spring of 2004, sewerage districts in the Milwaukee area dumped more than
one and a half billion gallons of raw sewage into Lake Michigan. While these numbers are shocking,
they are just a fraction of the 850 billion gallons that are dumped into the Great Lakes, other inland
lakes, rivers, and oceans throughout the U.S. each year. A timeline and federal funding for the
upgrade of combined sewage systems - those that collect storm and sanitary waste water together –
should be explored to remedy this persistent overflow problem.
Shoreline buffers, regional wetlands and Great Lakes forests must be preserved. The rapid
development of Great Lakes’ and inland waters’ shorelines and related habitat has contributed to the
decline of regional water quality. Wetlands, natural urban green-space and undeveloped shorelines
help filter rain water and snow melt that carries pollutants from farm fields, and suburban and urban
communities. Protecting Great Lakes wetlands and other habitat helps maintain the healthy balance
of nature and the waters that make this such a special place to live and travel.
We all have a responsibility to protect Great Lakes water quality, not for a single interest, but for our
families, our neighbors and our future.
For more information on the Great Lakes, tips and more, visit www.greatlakesforever.org. Great
Lakes Forever is a public education initiative launching in Chicago this June by the Biodiversity
Project, Shedd Aquarium and their partners. It’s designed to raise awareness of the ecological value
of the Great Lakes and concern about the threats to the ecosystem’s health.
Biodiversity Project advocates for biodiversity by designing and implementing innovative communication strategies that build and motivate a
broad constituency to protect biodiversity. A national organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, the Biodiversity Project has worked with
leaders in policy, advocacy, education, science, religious and grantmaking fields since 1995. For more information, visit
www.biodiversityproject.org and www.greatlakesforever.org.