Study finds Lake Erie, Detroit River improvements but cites threats

A lot in the water and shoreline of the Detroit River and western Lake Erie is much more environmentally sound than a generation or two ago, but new threats to the ecosystem are approaching tipping points, according to a 500-page, two-year study to be released Tuesday by an array of concerned officials and private citizens from the United States and Canada.

“Checkup: Assessing Ecosystem Health of the Detroit River and Western Lake Erie,” the 11th annual “State of the Strait” report, calls for new attention and remedial action to secure a healthful future.

“We’ve seen some really amazing ecological revivals of the Detroit River,” said John Hartig, a conservationist who helped prepare the international report, sponsored by companies, nonprofit groups, philanthropy and other sources.

“There were no bald eagles, 30 years ago, peregrine falcons, osprey, lake sturgeon or lake white fish spawning in the Detroit River. Mayflies weren’t around, and beaver weren’t here.

“But they are all back,” said Hartig, a visiting scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and a member of the board of directors of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

“Lake Erie is the same way. The bad news is we have some major problems, a series of problems, eight of which are documented in the report,” he said.

Climate change, pollution and nutrient-rich runoff from the land, algae blooms, toxic contamination, invasive species, habitat loss and degradation, urban sprawl and environmental justice are all pressing issues, according to the report.

The algae blooms, including an annual, massive episode on Lake Erie that is potentially toxic, disrupts fishing, boating and bathing, and poses a potential threat to water supplies, point to both the improvement of water quality and current crises that may be edging toward a tipping point.

“There has been quite a bit of progress made in reducing entry inputs into the Detroit River from the wastewater treatment plant, and there’s been a lot of success at fixing the sewage system in the Detroit metropolitan area,” said Steven Francoeur, professor of biology at Eastern Michigan University, who has helped prepare the binational State of the Strait reports for about 12 years. “But the algal blooms are an area where we still need more work.

“We’re still trying to implement solutions that we believe will be effective management strategies,” he said. “And we still need some more information on what is yielding these blooms and how best to manage them.” 

“Obviously, it’s a big problem, when you look at the temporal and spatial scale of those blooms and the potential problems they have for the Lake Erie ecosystem and the water quality there.”

Having accumulated 61 key indicators, about 200 observers from diverse backgrounds, including universities, governments, businesses, environmental groups and private citizens, met last November in Windsor to discuss them. They have worked in the 10 months since to compile the report.

It includes information on the quality of the water, preservation of critical wetlands, invasion of oppressive plants and creatures and health of native plants, fish and mammal species, including humans.

The return of river otter to Lake Erie for the first time in about a century is noted, as is the significant erosion of shoreline that threatens to eliminate wetlands crucial to the ecosystem, including habitat for wildlife and humans, while dumping untold tons of sediment into the lake annually.

The study points to the need to enforce laws regulating the environment and natural resources, and asserts that voluntary and collaborative efforts also will be required.

The need for enhanced monitoring is stressed.

“Long-term monitoring is essential in order to practice adaptive management that assesses the state of the ecosystem, sets management priorities, and implements management actions in an iterative fashion for continuous improvement,” according to a summary of the report.

“Without a commitment to science-based quantitative target setting and long-term monitoring, management is flying blind.”

From 2006, when some of the indicators were identified by the diverse groups and individuals preparing the report, the percentage of targets for conservation achieved had decreased, despite some marked improvements in the ecosystem

Climate change is identified as a pressing, potentially confounding concern.

“Indeed, addressing any of the eight environmental and natural resource challenges identified above is demanding, but mitigating them all at once and in the face of the climate change crisis is daunting,” according to report.

“Climate change will make the scientific understanding of many of the other environmental and natural resource challenges more difficult and will make solving them more complicated.”

Many of the indicators studied show some impact of the changing climate, said Claire Sanders, of the Essex Region Conservation Authority, in Ontario.

“It sort of plays as an under theme through the entire things,” Sanders said.

“It’s challenging. Very knowledgeable researchers in their fields are still trying to figure out what changes to the climate are going to bring to their specific indicator.”

The warming climate is deemed a “threat multiplier,” in which warmer, wetter, and wilder climatic conditions amplify other threats like harmful algal blooms, combined sewer overflow events and changes to species, according to Sanders and the report.

That one threat to the river and the lake affects another is increasingly seen among the field of indicators, said R. Michael McKay, the executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and a professor at the University of Windsor.

“We are seeing more of the concept of stressors that interact,” McKay said, who recently attended an international workshop on the topic.

“When climate change interacts with another stressor, like nutrient pollution, sometimes the effect can be additive, or at least synergistic, compared to stressors individually.

“The report underlines the increasing awareness of the importance of interactions between them,” he said.

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