Deperate Alewives: Jane’s Extremely Brief GLWQA Comment Guide for Extremely Busy People

An occasional column by Jane Elder.

by Jane Elder

Ah, July in the Great Lakes region, kicking off with Canada Day/Fête du Canada, followed by a quick segue into Independence Day, and then a blur of festivals, picnics, barbecues, mosquitoes, raspberry and cherry season, county fairs, beaches and boats, lemonade, and maybe baseball on the radio. We squeeze a lot into these rare weeks of precious Midwestern summer, which is why carving out time to get substantive comments into the US-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement negotiating team by July 9 seems even harder than a deadline in say, January.

If you are feeling as busy as I am, maybe you’d appreciate a quick guide to saying something meaningful on before the parades (4th of July and otherwise) pass you by. So here is my extremely truncated guide to comments on the GLWQA.

1. Governance

The current “BEC-based” system isn’t working well: too inside, not transparent, and leans toward bilateral instead of binational interaction. Let’s do something different. The Binational Coordinating Committee concept is worth considering. Let’s restore vigor to the independent boards of the IJC and staff them well; engage select teams of experts and citizen leaders to take on specific threats and challenges (in coordination with these boards); improve reporting, public engagement and constituency outreach; establish clearer roles for tribes,/first nations cities/municipalities.

2. Accountability

Both nations should conduct a review of domestic policy and provide a report on how agreement objectives will be met through existing or new policy and regulatory programs, and which agencies and positions within them will carry the responsibility for compliance with the agreement. The US should adopt a state/federal agreement similar to the Canada/Ontario agreement so we know which agencies (state or federal) are carrying out the work to comply with the agreement. Compliance programs should be easily identifiable in domestic federal agency budgets, and progress reports on specific ecological or numerical objectives should be posted every year in a publicly accessible format, such as the IJC Web site. And, the US can crow all it wants about its new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, but I’d really cheer if they’d clearly connect the dots between the restoration strategy, actual projects funded and how these projects are meeting the goals and objectives of the Agreement. Then we can challenge Canada to do the same.

3. AOCs and RAPs

Let’s agree the track record is dismal: two great democracies manage to mop up four contaminated hot spots in the lakes in 23 years, and we still can’t eat the fish. People, this is embarrassing, not to mention bad for the foodweb and more than 40 local economies. I propose dumping the polite and fuzzy euphemism “Areas of Concern” and calling them what they are: contaminated sites/harbors/habitats (pick your noun). Or, if you want to get more graphic: toxic hotspots. Keep the focus on cleaning up the toxic stuff. The objective is not “delisting” areas, it is making them nontoxic. If we succeed, we won’t need to have sites on a list. Remedial Action Plans are no good unless they lead to actual remedial action.

This circles us back to accountability: until the two nations figure out how we’re going to pay for cleaning up these toxic hotspots and we can point to it in domestic law and consult a lawyer acquaintance or two when things get bogged down, the AOCs will remain hot, contaminated, and dangerous places in the Great Lakes, no matter how many years of planning go into the RAPs. We need a new strategy and a big pot of domestic money on both sides of the border to get this mess cleaned up in our lifetimes. And, one other thing, the focus of RAP actions should be on the toxic mess. Wider issues belong in a whole new watershed-based strategy that links tributaries and coastal areas, and RAPs have proven not to be the model we want to expand for a whole watershed strategy.

4. While we’re on toxic substances…

Don’t mess with the concept of virtual elimination a.k.a. “zero discharge” when it comes to toxic substances in the Great Lakes. Dilution is a failed strategy in an essentially “closed” system in the first place. If substances are toxic to living things, and especially if they concentrate in the foodweb, we have no business allowing anyone to discharge them into the lakes or their tributaries or the skies. If we need tighter definitions, the international “POPs” treaty, which has its roots in work we started here in the Great Lakes, is a good place to look for guidance, as long as we don’t forget to address mercury and other inorganic chemicals. In fact, we should align the agreement with the POPs treaty and other efforts to deal with putting the toxic Pandora’s of the world back in their boxes, whenever the laws of physics and chemistry make that possible.

Meanwhile, we can’t stay stuck in 1987. Who knows how many toxic chemicals have been introduced to the marketplace and released into the lakes and other environments over the last 23 years? We need a concerted effort to update priority lists and strategies to deal with many chemicals we might not have even thought about the last time the agreement was raised.

Speaking of which, if you get the creeps from thinking about eating or drinking someone else’s used estrogen, heart medicine, or Prozac, join the call for investigations on new strategies to reduce pharmaceutical and cosmetic pollution. (Do I really need to ingest your laundry detergent fragrance in my next lake trout?)

Finally, prevention is always smarter than clean-up after the fact. Just ask BP.

5. Nutrients

The nutrient mess is a fixable problem, much like it was in the days after the first agreement was signed in 1972. The scale is larger now, and we have more extreme weather, and more mega-feedlots and more industrial-scale monoculture crops, and all the sewers we built back in the 1970s are old, and never designed for the massive suburban loads and urban runoff of today. But these are all surmountable problems, where there’s a will and the appropriations to back it up, there’s a way. We need numerical nutrient objectives for Great Lakes tributaries, bays and coastal waters, and open lake areas (and in some lakes, the natural basins that divide up the big lakes), but also biological objectives and indicators. The Agreement can establish this framework. There is no one-number fits all solution for nutrient loadings, but they all need to come down. We need good data (as in the Mississippi River watershed analysis) that tells us specifically where the nutrient loads are coming from, and then a plan to ratchet them down, watershed by watershed, from farm fields to overflowing sewers. And, does anyone in the Great Lakes basin really need phosphorus in their lawn chemicals or dishwasher detergent?

6. Climate

The agreement should acknowledge the impact of a changing climate on water quality in its introductory section, identify specific links to climate in specific annexes, and should include a new annex on climate change and water quality in particular. This annex should include research objectives that identify the unique trends and impacts in the Great Lakes, and ways to link that research with that of the IPCC and other large-scale analyses of climate. We need to understand the impacts of increasingly intense storms, warming water, increased winter evaporation, changes in phenology, invasive species vectors, etc., in the context of water quality and ecological health, and also identify any potential human health links, whether from increases in cyanobacteria, pathogen distribution and viability, etc. We should also identify and develop strategies to protect and promote resilience in highly sensitive habitats and/or those critical for ecosystem services and functions that are being altered or are likely to be altered by a changing climate.

7. Aquatic Invasive Species

I’m against them. You probably are too. We’ve been dithering about what to do about invasive species for a long time. They respect no boundaries, including those of the Great Lakes. Ballast water controls are a good idea (have been for more than a decade) but ballast isn’t the only vector, as Asian carp illustrate. We needed a continental plan, and if the US and Canada want to take the lead through the Agreement, I say go for it. We know that invasive species have fundamentally changed water chemistry and biology where they have set up housekeeping in the Great Lakes, which is sufficient cause to develop a full annex on this topic in the Agreement. While we’re at it, what about the terrestrial invasive species that mess with aquatic habitats, such as purple loosestrife in marshes that should support fish nurseries?

8. Habitats and Species

I’m for them, especially the “heritage” varieties, such as natural wetlands and native species. Since 1987, we’ve learned that biodiversity is an essential component of ecological vitality, and that includes water quality and biological integrity. The Agreement should explicitly state our nations’ intentional bias toward protecting and restoring natural habitat and native species in the Great Lakes as a complementary ecological goal that is an expression of biological integrity in the ecosystem. In a system so beleaguered by invasive species, and host to Pacific salmon that feast on Atlantic alewives, can we be so bold as to publicly declare that we want to restore what we can of the natural system? Let’s identify the high quality habitat that keeps the lakes as clean and healthy as they are now, and which nurtures our native species. Let’s turn the “Areas of Concern” concept on its head and designate Keystone habitats, or Crown Jewel Habitats, or some equally evocative designation for the truly vital habitats that are keeping the lakes as healthy as they can be, given all the other odds. Identify what is already protected, and what is at risk. Use these as bellwether sites for Great Lakes research on ecological quality and resilience, and don’t mess them up.

9. Ship-Source Pollution

No one has a right to pollute the lakes. Not ships, not anybody, and it doesn’t matter whether it is your ballast water, or waste water, or oil slicks from filling up the fuel tanks or smoke stack emissions. If it pollutes, don’t consider the lakes your disposal option.

10. Science Coordination

I’m for it. I’m also for restoring the scientific integrity and independence of research and reporting to either the Science Advisory Board or a similar body whose job is to look out for the lakes, their future, and the life that depends on them. To do so, the research and monitoring objectives must align with the long and short-term objectives of the agreement, in part, so we can know whether or not all the actions we are taking are actually making the lakes healthier. Monitoring needs to be strengthened to make sure we’re getting a rich base of real field data in addition to all the modeling that goes on, and human health studies, especially for things like endocrine disruptors, and we need enough long-term studies (10, 20, and 30 years +) to be able to really assess trends in humans and other living species.

Still with me?

Great! Form your own conclusions and submit them electronically via the website. If this link doesn’t work, go to and look for the red font “Binational Public Engagement Process — Provide your comments” and click on it to get into the “comment portal.” Just do it before the day ends on Friday, July 9, 2010.

One thought on “Deperate Alewives: Jane’s Extremely Brief GLWQA Comment Guide for Extremely Busy People

  1. bravo Jane. well done for those with very little time on their hands. sent my comments in yesterday, very consistent with your views.

    gail k.

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