Landmark lakes treaty may be reworked

Toledo and the rest of the Great Lakes region is less polluted than in 1970, above, but still facing environmental challenges.
Toledo and the rest of the Great Lakes region is less polluted than in 1970, above, but still facing environmental challenges.

The landmark U.S.-Canada treaty that kept Lake Erie from dying is expected to be renegotiated once an extraordinary review of the document is completed some 18 months from now.

Many people believe the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement needs updating so that it can be more effective in protecting the world's largest collection of fresh surface water from modern issues ranging from urban sprawl to global warming.

"The environment is not static. There are new challenges to the water quality of the Great Lakes," said Dennis Schornack, U.S. section chairman of the International Joint Commission.

The lengthy review process began last month with an organizational meeting operated out of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago.

Some 80 people - scientists, lawyers, government officials, industry lobbyists, environmental activists, tribal leaders, university researchers, and others - registered to participate on at least one of 10 working groups. Mark Elster, a U.S. EPA staffer leading the American review, told The Blade he expects dozens of other people to be involved.

The IJC, funded by the two federal governments, has helped the United States and Canada resolve boundary water issues since 1909. It uses the water-quality agreement as its guide for Great Lakes policy.

It was spawned in part to save the lakes from pollution that was choking the life out of them. But although pollution is a fraction of what it was, Mr. Schornack agreed the legacy of contaminated sediments is far from over.

Only two of 43 "hotspots" identified in 1987 by the IJC have been cleaned up. Streams in the Toledo and Monroe areas are included in the remaining 41.

Locally developed strategies to clean up the sediment, called remedial actions plans, or RAPs, have "moved at an agonizingly slow pace," Mr. Schornack said.

It all boils down to money.

"I wish we could move more from documentation to implementation," he said.

Details on how to participate will be posted at Meetings will be via the U.S. EPA's teleconferencing system, so participants won't have to travel to Chicago, he said.

Mr. Elster is working with a steering group that will synthesize recommendations for a U.S.-Canada group called the Binational Executive Committee. The latter will report to federal officials who decide the agreement's fate.

Mr. Elster said there are "no assumptions being made that it will be revised or won't be revised." But the review was ordered after the IJC's last biennial report said the two countries should consider an update.

The treaty was last altered in 1987. That was a year before zebra mussels showed up in Lake St. Clair after being transported to North America from ships sailing out of eastern Europe.

The pesky mussels spread throughout the rest of the Great Lakes and fanned out across the continent, wreaking havoc upon the ecosystem while costing consumers billions of dollars.

But zebra mussels have become almost passe.

The Great Lakes are now battered by an introduction of different foreign pests on the average of one every eight months, be it a new plant or fish. Scientists have shifted their efforts toward keeping mammoth Asian carp from making their way into Lake Michigan. They're also fighting the northern snakeheads. Both are voracious eaters capable of destroying the region's multibillion-dollar sportfishing industry.

Governors and premiers met in Milwaukee in December, for example, to sign a separate agreement intended to block attempts to divert Great Lakes water to other parts of the world.

State and federal officials are also trying to figure out how they can best regulate manure that flows off mega-sized livestock farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

In 1972, Lake Erie had all but been written off as a dead body of water. So much algae -stoked by phosphorus pollution - choked the western basin that it robbed the water of oxygen, causing tons of dead fish to wash up on beaches.

Faced with the mounting problems, Canadian and U.S. officials drafted the treaty and it immediately affected Ohio.

It forced steep declines in toxic releases from Great Lakes industries. And it led to a ban on phosphates in laundry detergents, an important step in removing phosphorus from Lake Erie's western basin so that the algae would go away.

Phosphorus also is in human waste. The agreement, coupled with the Clean Water Act, forced municipalities to spend billions on sewage plant upgrades - especially in Detroit, where one of North America's largest sewage plants exists.

Effluent from it comes down the Detroit River to Lake Erie's western basin. Without the treaty, Lake Erie may have perished. Now, that treaty may get a makeover.

Lee Botts, co-author of a new book called Evolution of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, said she's proud of what the treaty helped to accomplish in its early years. But she's also pleased it may be on the verge of being reopened. "It's not functioning well now," she said. "It's not functioning nearly as well as it has in the past."

Contact Tom Henry at: or 419-724-6079.