EPA, Obama to clean up Great Lakes

Lake Ontario, deemed the most polluted of the seven Great Lakes due to contaminats flowing from the others, will be part of the GLRI Action Plan.  (David Armelino | The Oswegonian)
Lake Ontario, deemed the most polluted of the seven Great Lakes due to contaminats flowing from the others, will be part of the GLRI Action Plan. (David Armelino | The Oswegonian)

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama administration released a new 5-year plan as an effort to restore plant and wildlife habitats in the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) Action Plan was disclosed by Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, at a meeting of Great Lakes Mayors in Chicago.

“The new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan lays out the steps we need to take to get us closer to the day when all Great Lakes fish will be safe to eat, all beaches will be safe for swimmers and harmful algal blooms will not threaten our drinking water supplies,” McCarthy said. “During the next five years, federal agencies will continue to use Great Lakes Restoration Initiative resources to strategically target the biggest threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem and to accelerate progress toward long term goals.”

The plan includes efforts to clean up 10 contaminated rivers and harbors and fight off the poisonous algae that coat over the lakes each summer.

“We’re currently engaged in the largest conservation initiative in American history, with more farmers taking action to preserve clean land and water than ever before,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “As part of that historic effort, many farmers in the Great Lakes region are working hard to help improve water quality downstream.”

Gregory Boyer is the chair of the chemistry department at SUNY ESF in Syracuse.

“None of these actions are expected to have immediate impact,” Boyer said. “It has taken us 50 years to pollute the lakes; we do not expect them to be cleaned up in five. However, it is time that we got started.”

The GLRI Action Plan aims to rebuild and conserve the work that was originally carried out with the first Action Plan. According to Boyer, the plan includes five components.

One factor of the plan incorporates an effort to decrease the harmful algae blooms on Lake Erie through changes in agricultural practices.

“This will be a major effort, especially with the events at Toledo this year, but I expect there will be other efforts in the Saginaw Bay (Lake Huron) and even in Sodus Bay (Lake Ontario),” Boyer said.

Another addition to the plan factors in the industrial pollutants in the areas of concern. These include Duluth on Lake Superior as well as the Rice and Red rivers on Lake Superior. The areas are expected to see significant improvements and concerted efforts.

“Closer to home, I expect them to make a concerned effort at the 18-mile Creek Area of Concern (near Rochester) and the Niagara River,“ Boyer added.

Although those are longer-term projects, Boyer said the changes in agricultural practices and stabilization of pollution are all good starting points.

Habitat restoration, according to Boyer, is where some of the immediate impacts will take place. Land that is threatened for development along the waterfront will be protected. According to Boyer, this will occur through the rebuilding of wetlands and waterfowl habitats as well as the restoration of areas that are seriously degraded.

“You can already see that starting in Sodus Bay Lake Ontario where the Nature Conservancy bought the Shaker Heights tract to protect it from development,” Boyer said.

The prevention of invasive species is another step in the plan.

“I would expect to see them fund the PRISM (Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management) in Central New York to work on Phragmite control near the Salmon River and maybe introduce monitoring of ships coming up the St. Lawrence River, although that may be too optimistic,” Boyer said.

The last step in the 5-step plan includes adoptive management. In the past, the EPA has sponsored a research cruise with local high school and elementary school teachers to learn about the issues on the Great Lakes. Teachers then go back to their classrooms to teach the students, however, if students are more environmentally focused, then there will be a greater long-term effort on the lakes.

Boyer said that this program has been stressed for funds in past years but should be fully funded under the new plan.

“That would have a big impact on getting knowledge about the lakes to local citizens,” Boyer said.

In addition to the plan that Boyer explained, Lake Ontario has an infamous reputation for being the most polluted of the five Great Lakes. Lake Ontario is the first lake that sees pollution coming up from the St. Lawrence River. Pollution coming down from the other five lakes is caught in Lake Ontario, causing contamination.

Since the Niagara River is a major source of nutrients for driving algal blooms in Lake Ontario, efforts to clean up nutrients in Lake Erie are most likely to have a major impact on Lake Ontario.

With work along the Genesee River watershed, Salmon River, Black River and Oswego River, pollutants will be decreased.

According to Boyer, one of the biggest dilemmas is “that this is basically a U.S. plan and Lake Ontario is a binational Lake.  Without a similar effort on the Canadian side – things will be much delayed.”