This week: Great Lakes Sees Signs of Climate Change + Lead at Detroit Public Schools + Lake Erie Algae Threat Dissipating
Great Lakes Region Sees Warmer Summer, Extreme Weather Events — Signs of Changing Climate
Flash floods, prolonged droughts, record heat, forest fires, hazy air, algal blooms, and poor water quality have afflicted various parts of the Great Lakes region all summer. Researchers and residents alike are reporting more and more days over 90 degrees, noticeable shifts in historical weather patterns, and altered growing seasons for native plants and crops. Local news sources across the region have documented the effects of climate change that Great Lakes communities are already experiencing. We’ve compiled a handful of the best stories below.
Algae Toxin Threat on Lake Erie Dissipates As Summer Ends
Algal blooms in Lake Erie often linger well into fall, and experts expect the Lake’s current bloom to stick around until at least mid-October, but the odds of having algal toxins show up in your tap water or favorite beach are falling each day. Researchers say that 70 to 80 percent of each bloom season’s toxins appear in the open water during the month of August, and fewer than 10 percent in September. While Lake Erie shoreline residents aren’t in the clear yet, the riskiest time of the algae season has passed.
High Lead and Copper in Detroit Public Schools Results in Complete Water Shutoff
After test results for 16 schools showed higher than acceptable levels for copper and/or lead, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has announced that they immediately shut off drinking water at those schools. Bottled water has been provided in the interim as the district waits on water coolers to be delivered. Out of an abundance of caution, water will be shut off at the remaining schools in the district later this week until a thorough analysis can be conducted.
In February of 2017, the district announced that drinking water at all 94 of its public schools fell within federal guidelines for lead and copper, a result mirrored by further testing later that same year. It is unknown at this point what has caused the spikes in both metals. One building in particular recorded a drinking fountain at 100 times the allowable limit for lead.
U.S. Court Upholds National Safeguard for Coal Ash, A Top Water Pollution Threat
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s decision last Tuesday adds up to another loss in a string of defeats for the Trump Administration as it attempts to unravel a host of environmental protections from the last decade. The court sided with public interest groups who argued that the Obama-era protections inadequately protected surrounding soil and water from ash pits, and that the Trump Administration is bound by law to strengthen regulations.
Coal ash is the toxic waste left over from coal-burning power plants. It contains some of the deadliest known toxins, including arsenic, lead, radium, mercury, and chromium. These cause various types of cancer, heart disease, reproductive failures, strokes, and long-term brain damage.
The court’s decision follows the release of nationwide testing data that demonstrates groundwater pollution from coal ash at almost 90% of plants (both active and abandoned) in the country. There are currently over 1,400—70% of which are located in low-income areas.
Michigan Reaches Halfway Point in Statewide PFAS Sampling of Water Systems
The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) has announced that its statewide sampling of public water systems for PFAS contamination has reached its midpoint. The $1.7 million survey is the first of its kind in the United States. So far, the state has sampled and tested 892 of the 1,841 public water systems and schools that operate their own wells. 341 of those tests have come back positive: 318 between 0 and 10 parts per trillion (ppt), 22 between 10 and 70 ppt, and 1 above 70 ppt.
While Michigan is one of only a handful of states to establish a “clean-up” or health advisory standard (70 parts per trillion), it’s notably higher than other states such as Minnesota (27/35 ppt) and Vermont (20 ppt). A recently released report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows statistically significant risk above 7-11 ppt. Freshwater Future warns residents in communities affected by PFAS contamination that there is no agreed-upon and established “safe” level of exposure. The State of Michigan will only take remediation action, issue drinking water advisories, and provide alternative water sources for systems who exceed its 70 ppt threshold—which Freshwater Future believes does not accurately reflect the human health risks of PFAS.
The statewide sampling schedule and confirmed test results are published on the MPART web site at: michigan.gov/PFASresponse. You can use this resource to check on results for your community.
This Week: Microplastics + Line 5 + Toronto Flooding + Algae in Lake Superior
More Flooding Hits Toronto, Renewing Concern About Overflows Into Lake Ontario
Steady rain early this week had residents wading through waterlogged streets and dealing with transit delays for the third time in several weeks. Since the beginning of August, 148 millimetres of rain have fallen on the city, according to Environment Canada. As systems become overwhelmed and city streets fill with water, that excess often spills out into Lake Ontario. We reported last week that the city’s last raw sewage overflow event caused bacteria levels in the city’s harbourfront to soar “off the charts.” Sewer and stormwater overflow can include everything from used condoms and plastic tampon applicators to mounds of shredded toilet paper and plenty of unidentifiable solids.
Experts say Toronto’s density and decades-old sewer system are two top contributors to sewer and stormwater overflow. Moving forward, the city is investing $3.1 billion for stormwater management upgrades, and has amended bylaws to encourage the installation of “green roofs” that have the ability to capture and process an average of 70 percent of rainfall. The city also encourages residents to use Toronto’s basement flooding protection subsidy program, which offers single-family, duplex, and triplex residential homes a subsidy of up to $3,400 per property to install flood protection devices.
Beer, Drinking Water, and Fish: Microplastics Are Everywhere
Since the mid-20th century, 8 billion tons of plastic have been manufactured, and when it’s thrown away, much of it crumbles into small pieces. Researchers call these “microplastics,” which are defined as objects smaller than 5 millimeters—about the size of a letter on your computer keyboard.
Recently, we’ve been reporting on the burgeoning science of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, as more inquiries are made on where used plastic ends up, where it comes from, and how it moves about the environment. Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto, is one of the leading researchers on this emerging field of study. Check out this article and interviewwith Chelsea on Great Lakes Today to find out more about what we do and don’t know about microplastics in our waters.
U.S. Senator Peters Holds Line 5 Hearing in Traverse City, MI
Representatives from federal agencies, Enbridge, and industry and environmental groups testified on Line 5, oil spill prevention and preparedness at a Senate Commerce Committee field hearing in Traverse City, Michigan on Monday. Senator Gary Peters’ (D-MI) questions covered the condition of the pipeline, whether or not Michigan needs or greatly benefits from its existence, and the logistics of a possible decommission.
Peters was highly critical of Line 5 operator Enbridge Inc., citing the severe trust deficit felt throughout the state after Enbridge’s past incidents—including the Kalamazoo oil spill in 2010. When the Senator confronted David Bryson, Senior VP of Operations for Liquid Pipelines at Enbridge, he received roaring applause from the overwhelmingly supportive crowd.
Enbridge did say at one point during the hearing that they would release video and images showing damage to Line 5 from the anchor strike in April, although no details on when or how were given. You can watch the full hearing on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s website.
“Unprecedented” Algal Bloom in Lake Superior
Although now largely dissipated, the scummy residue on the Lake’s surface across 50 miles of shoreline near Superior, Wisconsin raised more than a few eyebrows. Lake Superior is deep, cold, clear, and generally very low-nutrient, meaning algal blooms are rare. 2012 was the first year a bloom of blue-green algae was detected in Lake Superior. This occured after 10 inches of rain overwhelmed Duluth, Minnesota and the surrounding region, sending a plume of brown sediment into the lake. Storms in northern Wisconsin spurred another round of flooding, sediment dumping, and resulting algal bloom in 2016. And it happened again after this year’s historic June storms in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, northern Wisconsin, and northeastern Minnesota. This last bloom was the largest observed.
Researchers don’t yet know whether this most recent Lake Superior bloom was toxic. In the meantime, scientists say there’s no need to worry: the blooms that have occurred thus far are very small and have had a negligible impact on water quality. However, blue-green algae has grown more commonplace in the Great Lakes region alongside warming lake temperatures and an increase in phosphorus and nitrogen runoff. Lake Superior hasn’t escaped these trends, and researchers warn that runoff and resulting algal blooms will be more commonplace in the future.
This week: Sewage Leaks in Toronto + Disappearing Great Lakes Beaches + Foxconn Invests in Renewable Energy + Freshwater Future’s Flint Water Testing Program
Estimated One Trillion Litres of Sewage Have Leaked into Canadian Lakes and Rivers Over Last Several Years
Recent flash-flooding in Toronto caused an unknown amount of raw sewage to overflow into the city’s harbourfront. According to national water advocacy group Swim Drink Fish, bacteria levels in affected areas “were off the charts.” Sewer and stormwater overflow can include everything from used condoms and plastic tampon applicators to mounds of shredded toilet paper and plenty of unidentifiable solids.
This is an all-to-common occurrence in the Great Lakes region, and across Canada. Toronto, like most other Canadian cities, doesn’t collect real-time data about sewage leaks. Thus, it’s unknown how often and to what extent this type of event occurs. The Canadian government requires annual reporting on the issue, but most municipalities submit estimates based on computer models. Data provided by Environment Canada shows that in 2017, approximately 215 billion litres of raw sewage leaked into local waterways without treatment—an increase of 10 percent over five years. About 2/3 of the 2017 amount was released intentionally during high-intensity precipitation events. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that it will cost cities $18 billion to implement the federal government’s new regulations on wastewater treatment that are aimed at severely curbing the overflow events.
Cornell Researchers Discover 2 New Non-Native Species in Great Lakes
The Great Lakes now have a total of 180 documented foreign species now that scientists have observed two new exotic species, both about the size of a flea. They both have been found in low abundance, and scientists have no evidence so far of serious negative side-effects on native zooplankton species. For that reason, they are not yet being referred to as “invasive,” a term which is typically reserved for species with negative impact. These are the third and fourth non-native zooplankton species discovered in the Great Lakes in the past three years.
Plankton serve as the base of the food chain and are a staple in several small fish species’ diets. Over the last few decades, native zooplankton populations in the Great Lakes have plummeted thanks to the highly-efficient filtering of invasive zebra and quagga mussels. It’s unclear what, if any, effect these two new species will have on Great Lakes ecosystems. Scientists’ next job is figuring out how they arrived, but an early suspicion is the ballast water ships carry from foreign ports.
Foxconn Addresses Critics in Wisconsin, Plans Investments In Tech to Reduce Water Consumption and Increase Renewable Energy
Back in May, we reported on an approved legal challenge to Foxconn’s expected water consumption at its proposed Wisconsin factory. Following this announcement, Foxconn released information about a planned $30 million investment for a water recycling system that will reduce their daily consumption from ~7 million gallons to around 2.5 million gallons.
The company is now following up with details of a possible rooftop solar array that may cover a significant portion of the plant’s expected 200 megawatt electric demand—somewhere between 100 and 150 megawatts. The power expected to be drawn initially from Foxconn plus its nearby suppliers is over six times greater than the next-largest Wisconsin manufacturing plant, and is similar to the total power used in downtown Madison. Negotiations with the local utility are in their early stages, and no plans are finalized.
While an insignificant drop in the (freshwater) ocean, we opposed Foxconn’s 7 million gallon/day withdrawal based on the negative precedent it set with regard to the Great Lakes Compact’s (check out our comprehensive overview of the Compact here) rules on water withdrawals. We still hold that view! Regardless, Foxconn’s early announcements around water and energy efficiency are welcome news.
Have High Great Lakes Water Levels Made Your Favorite Beach Disappear?
Many of us here at Freshwater Future have noticed our favorite beaches have looked a little, well, on the lean side these past few years. To help us understand why, Michigan Radio interviewed Philip Chu—a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory—about the ins and outs of water levels. Check out their 10 minute interview to find out what factors impact our water levels, how erosion plays a part in our changing beaches, and whether or not this is “normal.”
Freshwater Future’s Flint Water Testing Program — In the News
“These young people will be the future water warriors.” Read more on The Renewal Project.
“We’re gonna be a model city for people all around this country for people to learn from us. Cause we didn’t go through a crisis for nothing.” Read more on NBC News.
“A pilot program is giving Flint teenagers the opportunity to learn new skills, while helping city residents still too scared to trust their drinking water is safe.” Read more on Michigan Radio.
As Algae Season Descends on Lake Erie, Freshwater Future Amps Up Campaign to Challenge Political Leaders to Fix Nutrient Pollution
We know what’s wrong. We know how to fix it. The only thing lacking is the political will to do something about Lake Erie algae.
Take Action Today: Send a message to Premier Ford of Ontario, Governor Snyder of Michigan, Governor Kasich of Ohio, and Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania. Tell them we need leadership on saving Lake Erie.
This week: Lake Erie Wind Farm + 2017 Lake Ontario Flooding + Lake Erie Algae Early Detection System
Curious Why Lake Ontario Had Terrible 2017 Flooding? Watch This IJC Explanation Video
The International Joint Commission (IJC) has released a short video that highlights the major climatic events that caused 2017 flooding on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The IJC is the binational, independent commission that regulates water levels in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway. This video discusses the board’s decision process for managing outflows and provides a basin-wide explanation of why these decisions occurred. It also explains how the flooding could have been worse if the IJC hadn’t taken the actions they did.
First-of-Its-Kind Lake Erie Wind Development Given Tentative Green Light
The Ohio Power Siting Board has recommended conditional approval of the $126 million, six-turbine wind farm set to be installed 8-10 miles northwest of downtown Cleveland. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2021, 18 years after the project was initially proposed. If carried out, the project would be the first freshwater wind farm in the nation.
The approval does contain some three dozen conditions: one of which is that the company behind the proposal, Lake Erie Energy Development Co. (LEEDCo), develop a bird and bat monitoring plan. The turbines will also be barred from running at night from March 1st to January 1st until the company proves that the turbines are not a threat to migrating birds and bats.
Once the initial six turbines are installed, many following the project expect LEEDCo to pursue expanding the operation to over 1,000 additional turbines over time.
Note: While Freshwater Future supports the expansion of renewable energy in the Great Lakes region, we haven’t yet taken a position on this particular project.
U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D-MI 12) Announces Funding for Harmful Algal Bloom Early Warning System on Lake Erie
Great Lakes Observing System Regional Association in Ann Arbor, Michigan will receive a $585,702 grant to improve early warning systems for Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in Lake Erie. The Association brings together organizations involved in the annual monitoring, reporting, and dissemination of harmful algae data. They also communicate with representatives of affected user groups, especially drinking water treatment plant operators.
Improvements to the observing system funded by the grant will provide water treatment facilities and their managers with timely and user-friendly access to critical monitoring data during future algal blooms. This will help them make informed decisions about water treatment and management in the face of potentially toxic blooms and help prevent a repeat of Toledo’s 2014 water quality scare.
Scott Pruitt Is No Longer EPA Administrator, But Don’t Expect Things to Change
In only a year and a half, Scott Pruitt managed to roll back numerous Obama-era policies. He played a key role in pulling the U.S. from the landmark Paris Climate Accord, initiated the repeal of the Clean Power Plan, suspended the Clean Water Rule, repealed a rule that protected streams from toxic waste disposal, and indicated that he would take down the stricter vehicle emissions standards set to take effect in 2022. Pruitt also presided over an mass exodus of over 700 EPA staff nationwide, the purging of climate change references in EPA websites and documents, and the diminished role of science in decision making.
Acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler isn’t likely to shift the agency’s course as he steps into his new role. A former coal lobbyist, Wheeler has a long history of advocating for the same types of regulatory rollbacks that Pruitt has championed. Those familiar with his background as a former legislative aide on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and legislative aide to Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma)—the most outspoken climate change skeptic in the Senate—say his connections in Washington may help him be even more effective than Pruitt at removing environmental protections. Already, Wheeler has indicated that he will carry out Pruitt’s last agenda item by freezing auto emissions standards and revoking California’s waiver to enforce their own stricter standard. The effect is that automakers will face fleet standards of 35 miles per gallon rather than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.
This week: Guelph-Eramosa Township Council Shut Down Water-Intensive Glass Plant + Ohio Governor Cracks Down on Algae-Fueling Pollution + Poll Shows Strong Support for Great Lakes + Michigan Ignores Early PFAS Warning + Great Lakes Plastic Pollution
Guelph-Eramosa Township Council Shut Down Water-Intensive Glass Plant Proposal, Received Pressure from Local Activists
A proposal to build a massive glass plant outside the western border of Guelph, Ontario was rejected by the Guelph-Eramosa Township council in a 4-1 vote this past Monday. Xinyi Glass, the company behind the proposal, said the two-million-square-foot facility would need 1.56 million litres of water per day, an unacceptable amount for many residents in an already stressed watershed.
An activist group named GET Concerned collected 1,700 resident signatures on a petition opposing the glass plant and helped organize a turnout of 300 people to the township council meeting. Their argument centered around enforcing a zoning bylaw that dictates industrial development must be “dry use,” meaning it does not use significant water. Ultimately, the Township Council agreed that the project proposal did not comply with that zoning bylaw.
Are the Great Lakes Plastic Dumping Grounds?
Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans is well-documented. Now, there’s an increased interest in examining plastic in the Great Lakes. Read more.
Ohio Governor Orders Lake Erie Nutrient Pollution Reduction After Legislature Falters
Ohio’s farming industry is worth an estimated $2.4 billion—it’s massive. It’s also the primary source of nutrient pollution in Ohio watersheds emptying into Lake Erie. That’s why Ohio Governor Kasich’s recent announcement is significant.
On July 11th, Kasich signed an executive order that aims to place strict restrictions on nutrient pollution that fuels Lake Erie’s algae growth. It’s a result of months of threats that he would act if the legislature did not, stating that the state needed tighter rules to satisfy an agreement to decrease phosphorus in Lake Erie by 40 percent.
Given that the Governor bypassed the legislature, we can expect strong pushback and potential delays—or even a policy reversal under the next administration. Freshwater Future is enthusiastic about this positive step forward, but we’ll be working to make sure these changes are implemented in a more permanent fashion.
Poll: 88 Percent of Great Lakes Residents Agree that Lakes Deserve Bigger Investments
The International Joint Commission (IJC)—a bi-national commission that reports to both the U.S. and Canadian governments—released new poll results that show stronger support for the Great Lakes than in its last basin-wide poll in 2015. 4,250 residents across Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ontario were randomly sampled by the IJC’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board.
Overall, 88 percent believe more should be done to protect the lakes, an uptick of 3 percent. More than half of respondents believe there are too few regulations to protect the lakes, compared with 46 percent in the 2015 poll. Some 55 percent said they are willing to have costs for some consumer products rise to get greater protection of the lakes. Most believe additional rules will either have no impact on the economy or will help improve it. Four of every five respondents agreed citizens have responsibility as individuals to help protect the lakes. Read more.
New Documents Show the State of Michigan Ignored Early PFAS Warning
Robert Delaney, a 30-plus year employee at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, delivered a 93-page report outlining his concerns about shockingly high PFAS levels in fish and documenting known pollution that indicated “a significant exposure to Michigan citizens and ecosystems.” “Communities with fire training facilities, other Department of Defense (DOD) bases, metal platers, other major airports, major transportation corridors, and other industrialized areas all could have extensive contamination by (PFAS),” Delaney wrote. According to the DEQ, of the 15 recommendations in Delaney’s report, only the proposal for statewide surface water sampling was acted upon before the fall of 2017.
Now a national concern—particularly at military bases—PFAS has been detected at 31 sites in 15 Michigan communities. Contamination sites have also been detected in each of the other Great Lakes states. While Michigan is now considered a leader on PFAS contamination response relative to other states, many affected communities are raising questions about the missed opportunity for earlier action.
While PFAS have useful commercial and industrial applications, these chemicals also persist in the environment and in people (they do not break down into less harmful forms), and a number of them have been shown to be very toxic even at low levels.