[originally appeared on The Earth Story]
In any map of North America, the Great Lakes draw the eye to their irregular shape, stamped on the continent like an aquatic Rorschach test. Formed after the last glacial period, the five lakes straddle the border between the US and Canada and contain centuries of history in their shipwreck-studded depths. Erie, Ontario, Huron and Michigan, and the largest of them all, Superior, together make up the largest system of fresh surface water in the world, providing drinking water for 40 million people around their shores and generating billions of dollars in revenue from tourism and recreational or commercial boating and fishing.
The Great Lakes play a crucial ecological role, providing critical breeding, feeding, and resting areas for a wide range of native species as well as migration corridors for migratory birds. For many years, though, the lakes have been subject to ecological degradation: polluted by industrial and agricultural activities, invaded by non-native species, and hit by toxic algal blooms. In 2014, for example, 500,000 residents in the city of Toledo, Ohio went without water for three days because of an algal bloom in Lake Erie. Algal blooms occur when runoff of phosphorus-heavy fertilizer from farmlands and feedlots provides a surge in available nutrients for algae in waterways, leading to an explosion of growth.
In 2010, a federal effort called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was launched to help strengthen and protect the Great Lakes ecosystem. Previously, target areas of significant degradation had been designated as “Areas of Concern;” the initiative aims to delist all of the US AOCs by funding more than 3,000 projects to rehabilitate the lake environments. To deal with the pollution that causes algal blooms, watershed management programs have partnered with farmers to reduce excess fertilizer runoff, while green infrastructure projects and wetlands restoration in shoreline cities like Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee reduce urban runoff. In the Toledo area, best practices have been established for farmers, and parks and roadways have been retrofitted with rain gardens and bioswales (landscape elements designed to trap contaminants) to capture and filter runoff into Maumee Bay, the site of the 2014 algal bloom.
Other projects aim to keep the water in the lakes safe for drinking and recreation, control the spread of harmful invasive species, restore natural habitats, and promote the health of endangered and threatened native species like the Canada lynx, piping plover, and the Lake Erie water snake, which is one of only 23 species to be removed from the Endangered Species List due to recovery. In 2016, the five-year program was renewed through 2021 by Congress, which appropriated $300 million per year of funding for the initiative. However, budget proposals for the coming year reduce funding 97%, despite broad bipartisan and local support for the program.
Live in the Great Lakes watershed and want to see what the GLRI has done for your town or county? You can find an interactive map and list of projects here: www.glri.us