What Did The Great Lakes Look Like Before Environmental Regulations?
Posted on: May 1, 2017
Port of Cleveland, 1968
Junk is used to build a breakwall in Cleveland, Ohio on Lake Erie, 1968 (Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Recent media articles have focused on news about potential reductions to Great Lakes environmental restoration and protection programs. In light of such news, it is interesting to look back to a time of reduced or non-existent environmental regulations. A photo essay in Time magazine shows us just what it was like.

The Time Magazine article profiles disturbing photos taken by photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt showing the Great Lakes in 1968. When the photos were taken, environmental laws did exist, but their was no special legislation respecting the Great Lakes. View all of the photos here…

Environmental legislation for Great Lakes restoration and protection evolved over a substantial period of time and is still evolving.  The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was the first U.S. major law in place to address water pollution. In 1972 this legislation was amended and became the Clean Water Act.

President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau
President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau complete signing of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, 1972.

On the Great Lakes, a separate piece of legislation was implemented, namely the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, aimed at coordinating actions of Canada and the United States, “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes.” The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was most recently amended in 2012 to better address the current situation on the Great Lakes. Objectives fall into ten distinct categories or “annexes.”

  1. Areas of Concern
  2. Lakewide Management
  3. Chemicals of Mutual Concern
  4. Nutrients
  5. Discharges from Vessels
  6. Aquatic Invasive Species
  7. Habitats and Species
  8. Groundwater
  9. Climate Change Impacts
  10. Science

On the Canadian side, Water Quality Agreement objectives are addressed through the Canada – Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health which dates from 1994.  The Agreement outlines how the governments of Canada and Ontario will cooperate to restore, protect and conserve the Great Lakes basin ecosystem. Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry all cooperate to implement Canada – Ontario Agreement goals.

On the U.S. side, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was launched in 2010 to address issues in Great Lakes Areas of Concern, prevent invasive species, reduce nutrient runoff resulting in harmful algal blooms and restore habitat to protect native species. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency works in cooperation with state level environmental agency counterparts in every state bordering the Great Lakes to achieve Great Lakes Restoration Initiative goals. View Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects on a map here.

On Lake Superior, cooperative work or partnership aimed at Lake Superior restoration and protection is carried out through the U.S. EPA, Environment and Climate Change Canada and their state and provincial counterparts. Goals are laid out in the the Lake Superior Lakewide Action and Management Plan 2015-2019. Current goals include:

  1. Maintain deepwater and offshore waters in good ecological condition.
  2. Maintain nearshore zone and reefs in good ecological condition.
  3. Maintain embayments and inshore areas in good ecological condition.
  4. Maintain coastal wetlands in good ecological condition.
  5. Maintain islands in good ecological condition.
  6. Maintain coastal terrestrial habitats in good ecological condition.
  7. Maintain tributaries and watersheds in good ecological condition.
  8. Achieve zero release (from within the Lake Superior basin) of nine persistent bioaccumulative toxic substances.
  9. Protect the Lake Superior basin from contamination resulting from additional substances of concern.

As laid out in the 2016 Progress Report of the Parties, Great Lakes restoration efforts to date show substantial progress, including:

  • Moving forward with the “Randle Reef” project to cleanup contaminated sediment in Hamilton Harbour
  • Completion of a sediment remediation project for mercury contaminated sediment in Peninsula Harbour at Marathon, Ontario
  • Addressing all environmental impairments listed in the Remedial Action Plan for Nipigon Bay
  • Developing a Lakewide Action and Management Plan for Lake Superior
  • Implementing several Great Lakes invasive species prevention and control measures
  • Addressing environmental impairments such that several locations have been removed from the list of  Great Lakes Areas of Concern (recent examples include: Presque Isle, Pensylvania; Deer Lake, Michigan;White Lake Michigan)

Many Great Lakes environmental challenges remain, including the problem of nutrient runoff and harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie. Public support will likely be a vital component for progress in resolving complex Great Lakes environmental challenges, well into the future.





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