Great Lakes

The Great Lakes consist of lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Some water enters Lake Superior from the Hudson Bay drainage system. Between 65-85 percent of the precipitation evaporates, while some water drains out of Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes and surrounding lands, once covered by forests, grasslands, and interspersed wetlands, are heavily impacted by urbanization, agriculture, and industry.

Why is this system important?

The Great Lakes cover a surface area of over 94,294 square miles, and drain about 201,460 square miles of landThey contain 84 percent of the surface fresh water in the United States, and about 21 percent of the world’s supply of fresh water. The Great Lakes contain over 150 species of fish, including lake sturgeon, which are endangered due to extensive commercial fishing. Hundreds of other diverse plants and animals are dependent on the Great Lakes ecosystem, including many threatened or endangered species like the gray wolf and piping plover. Over 30 million people live in the Great Lakes basin – in 8 states and 2 Canadian provinces. The land surrounding the Great Lakes supports nearly 25 percent of Canadian agricultural production, and 7 percent of American farm production. The Great Lakes support over 1.5 million United States jobs in numerous sectors including shipping, manufacturing, agriculture, science and engineering, utilities, commercial fishing, mining, recreation, and tourism – and in 2008, the region generated more than $4.6 trillion in economic output.

What are major challenges?

Invasion of non-native species and nonpoint source pollution (nutrients) resulting in increased occurrences of harmful algal blooms (HABs) are two of the major challenges in the Great Lakes system. The introduction of zebra mussels has decimated the amount of diporeia (zooplankton), an important food source for fish in Lake Michigan. In addition, changes in the amount, composition (particulate vs. soluble), and timing of nutrient loads, most notably phosphorus, is likely a major cause of increased HABs over the past few years. Other major challenges include the existence of legacy contaminants in ports and harbors (Areas of Concern) and the degradation and/or loss of wetlands and other fish and wildlife habitats across the Basin. Finally, potential climate change impacts related to air and water temperatures, water quality, and habitat are compounding the challenges that affect the Great Lakes ecosystem.

How is restoration and scientific research organized?

Restoration and research efforts are coordinated and executed by government agencies, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private industries. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) coordinates U.S. efforts with Canada to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem according to the guidelines set in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (1972, 1978, 1983, 1987, and 2012). The U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center was established in 1927 with the mission of providing scientific information for restoring, enhancing, managing, and protecting living resources and their habitats in the Great Lakes basin ecosystem.

NGOs such as the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the Healing our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, and the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative also play important roles in coordinating Great Lakes activities. The Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, the Great Lakes Commission, the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission, and the International Joint Commission all provide bi-national direction and governance as directed and authorized by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

The development and use of data management systems has greatly improved how science is used in the Great Lakes. Primarily, project data and/or metadata are organized and served using the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS), the USGS Science in the Great Lakes Mapper (SIGL), and the USEAP Great Lakes Monitoring website. GLOS is a binational nonprofit organization funded by dues that are scaled based in type and size of organization. The other two systems were developed using GLRI funds and are now operational and publically available.

How is scientific research funded?

Like the other systems, funding for scientific research in the Great Lakes comes from numerous sources, including government (federal, State, and local), non-government organizations, and private interests. Like the other systems, it is difficult to obtain funding information for scientific research specifically. The publicly available funding estimates from the Federal Crosscut Budget for the Great Lakes are provisional and final allocations may differ. It is useful, however, in providing a “directional” estimate in general terms that can be compared with other Federal Crosscut budgets in other systems.

For FY2016, federal agencies budgeted $785 million for Great Lakes related activities, including $300 million specifically for restoration (GLRI); for reported years 2011-2016, average annual funding has been $932 million and totaled $5.6 billion.  Of note, the USEPA administers the GLRI, which funds a variety of activities including grants and implementation of the Great Lakes Legacy Act projects.

Great Lakes Presentation

Presenter: Jon Hortness, USGS Liaison to the USEPA Great Lakes National Program Office, Coordinator for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.  Research interests include river/watershed modeling, surface/groundwater interactions, flood and drought analyses, and in-stream flow criteria.

Jon Hortness began by saying that the Great Lakes is different than the other systems; it’s much larger, there is a bi-national component with Canada, and it covers a large, vast area that is very different, even from one end of the Lakes to the other. There are major urban centers, such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, as well as vast undeveloped areas.  All the lakes do have a connection that is important to be aware of. “There is a vast range of ecosystems and a vast range of issues, but yet they are all interconnected,” he said.

There is 10,000 miles of coastline and a 200,000 square mile drainage area that includes eight states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) and two Canadian provinces (Ontario and Quebec).  The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh water; it is a source of drinking water for 42 million people. The Great Lakes are also economically important; $62 billion in wages are tied directly to the lakes.

There’s a long history of bi-national cooperation, beginning with the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which wasn’t specifically related to the Great Lakes, but just Canada and U.S. in general.  Subsequent to that was the development of the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission in 1954 and the Great Lakes Basin Compact in 1955 which set the stage for collaboration in the Great Lakes, not only with Canada but also amongst the state and federal agencies. Then in 1972, the development of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement which set the stage for the science and the restoration that’s currently ongoing.

The Great Lakes Fisheries Commission was established in 1954. The Commission is a federal agency comprised of the Canadian and U.S. federal governments; there isn’t a state or local component to it. Even back in 1954, science was included as it was recognized early on that in order to manage the fishery at a regional level, they needed to make sure they had the science background to support that.

Their main focus when they first started was the sea lamprey control,” Mr. Hortness said. “The early goals were to get rid of the sea lamprey and get back to some kind of a natural state. Now they’ve basically gotten to a point where they can live with the sea lamprey and we can function together.”

The Great Lakes Commission is similar to the Fisheries Commission; it was developed as part of the Great Lakes Compact with Canada. However, this is only a state and provincial organization, so federal governments are not involved other than to be observers.

With the development of the Water Quality Agreement in 1972, there were several additional agreements in 1978, 1987, and 2012. The agreement was spurred by a fire in 1969 on the Cuyahoga River, a river in northeast Ohio that feeds into Lake Erie, along with other chronic pollution problems facing the lakes. An article in Time Magazine in 1969 said, ‘Lake Erie is in danger of dying by suffocation.’ “That was what really increased public awareness, especially in the Great Lakes region, that something had to be done,” he said.

However, although there were formalized agreements, there wasn’t a lot of funding to go along with the agreements that were in place. “Anything that was happening was done basically under current authorities,” he said. “There wasn’t really any coordinated structure or any coordinated effort, and there was no money to drive any of that.”

In 2004, President Bush signed the Executive Order 13340 — Establishment of Great Lakes Interagency Task Force and Promotion of a Regional Collaboration of National Significance for the Great Lakes that created a federal interagency Task Force for the Great Lakes that was charged with establishing a regional collaboration of national significance. The task force included governors, mayors of the Great Lakes’ major cities, federal leaders from cabinet-level departments, tribal leaders, congressional delegations, and also industrial and environmental advocates – the entire breadth of folks interested and willing to work on Great Lakes issues.  Out of that, they developed a regional collaboration strategy.

The strategy was released in December of 2005, and it was a high-level plan listing everything that needs to be done to address issues in the Great Lakes along with cost estimates in the billions of dollars. “It set the stage for where we are now with Great Lakes Restoration Initiative,” Mr. Hortness said. “This was kind of that high, overarching, ‘this is where we really want to be,’ but nothing was in place until the funding came in 2010 for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).”

Based on the regional collaboration strategy, an action plan was developed; no longer just a strategy, there was now an action plan. “It was now in writing that these are the most important issues that need to be addressed and here is how we are going to address them. That’s the way these action plans have been written,” he said.

The first action plan was developed in 2010 and went through 2014; currently they are in Action Plan 2. The action plan focused on five components: toxic substances and areas of concern; invasive species; non-point source pollution; habitats and species; and foundations for future restoration actions.

In Action Plan 1, science was not recognized as important to the process per se,” Mr. Hortness said. “Part of it was maybe a little bit of a payback; we had all of these people that are a part of that regional collaboration and all these people that had participated in all these efforts, so when the money finally came, it was kind of, ‘All right, everybody get your piece of the pie because you’ve been with us the whole time.’ That’s kind of the way funding worked under Action Plan 1 for the first four or five years.

With Action Plan 2, there was a definite change in structure; there were outcomes with metrics on the things they wanted to achieve, such as pounds of phosphorous reduction, or number of invasive species prevented.  This made science much more important to the process as they now needed to start tracking and monitoring the metrics, and consider what the best methods were to achieve those metrics.

The agencies, like the USACE, would build something or would want to take something out and started to look to the science agencies and ask, ‘We need help to determine what’s the best way to do this; what’s the most efficient way to do this?’” he said. “So we’ve evolved over those years where now science has become a much greater piece of what we’re doing as far as the restoration. … It’s evolved over time as the needs have arisen, and people start to understand where all those niches fall.”

Mr. Hortness then turned to the specific issues they are dealing with, noting the issues that they are dealing with aren’t so different from a lot of the other places.

The 1987 Water Quality Agreement identified ‘areas of concern,’ which included toxics (legacy contaminants and ‘new chemicals of mutual concern’), invasive species (Dreissenid mussels, Asian Carp, sea lamprey, and phragmites), nutrients (ag and urban sources, harmful algal blooms), and habitat and species (loss/degradation of wetlands, collapsing food webs, native species declines). These issues were identified both in the Water Quality Agreement as well as the action plan under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The big question mark is climate change and how climate change will impact all of these issues, Mr. Hortness said. “That definitely still remains to be seen,” he said. “We’re trying to determine what the best approach to take is, and we haven’t gotten to the point of even making that decision or coming up with a potential decision.”

He then turned to the science structure.  “There are a lot of people doing a lot of different things,” he said. “It’s difficult to coordinate; it’s difficult to try to keep everybody pointed in the same direction. We have to grab stakeholders from northern Minnesota all the way to New York, and try to get all those folks together at the same time and the same place. It’s a struggle, but there are certain things that we’ve done to try to get together.”

With the Water Quality Agreement, it is a bi-national approach with both the U.S. and Canada; it is co-chaired by both the US EPA and Environment and Climate Change Canada. The Great Lakes Executive Committee is comprised of cabinet-level representatives on the U.S. side and similar type folks on the Canadian side. Under that are the annexes (or issues) that they want to address. Each annex has a subcommittee, which has a regional representative from the federal agencies as well as state representatives and subject matter experts.

Below that, each lake has a partnership which is another place where collaboration and co-production occurs. Each partnership is comprised of a management committee and a working group. The working groups are where the scientists, the subject matter experts, the management agencies, the locals, the watershed groups, the citizen groups, and stakeholders come together to talk about the issues on that lake.  Every five years, each lake develops a Lake Action and Management Plan, which is a detailed and more focused version of the action plan under Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) that identifies the major issues and the tools and methods for addressing them. On an annual basis, a summary is produced of the work that was done and how they are progressing on the plan.

All the stakeholders are part of that process,” Mr. Hortness said. “We want everybody in the room; we want everybody to be part of that mechanism to develop that Action and Management Plan. That is where the social science comes in. That is where we talk about, what can we live with? What can we afford? What can the public handle? All those types of questions are brought up and, hopefully, laid out in the action plan.”

The Great Lakes Water Quality Annexes are the opposite of the partnerships; they are only on the federal side. Under the executive committee, there are ‘annex sub-committees,’ which are basically the management agencies at the federal and state level.  It includes the EPA, federal, state, and tribes on the U.S. side, and on the Canadian side, Environment and Climate Change Canada, federal, provincial, and first nations. There are also extended sub-committees which includes NGOs and citizen groups. “They don’t have any responsibility per se, but they can provide input and comments throughout this entire process,” he said.

Under the annex process, they form task themes as needed to complete a specific task. For example, one of the big goals has been to reduce harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie. “A team was developed with university experts, federal scientists, state folks, and representatives who basically came up with the recommendation over about an 18-month period including modeling and social science conversations,” Mr. Hortness said. “What would it take to reduce the occurrence of harmful algal blooms in western Lake Erie? And what could the public live with? What would we have to do to reduce the phosphorus inputs to make those harmful algal blooms drop down? So that team came up with a recommendation of a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus by 2025 to reduce the occurrence of harmful algal blooms in western Lake Erie.”

That was the recommendation that came out of the Water Quality Agreement annex,” continued Mr. Hortness. “Then the states have bought into that and have basically signed on to support that agreement or that resolution. That’s where they are now in the state process – trying to achieve those standards or figure out how they’re going to achieve those standards. It started at the federal level on both sides of the border, but now the states and the provinces are brought into that, and now we’re pushing forward to try to achieve those reduction recommendations.”

Outside of GLRI Water Quality Agreement, there are other federal-agency-based programs which have ongoing work under each agency’s mission that may or may not fit into that overarching goal of the Water Quality Agreement and/or GLRI, but in a lot of cases, they do, he said.

The USEPA has the Great Lakes National Program Office which has a long-term monitoring program, where they have a large vessel that rotates from lake to lake every year; on a five-year cycle, it collects major open-water data on things like dissolved oxygen, sediment, water quality, biology, and fisheries.

As part as the federal agency support of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, the USGS monitors the prey fish in all of the lakes to help make fishery management decisions. There is a vessel on each of the five lakes that does annual open-water fisheries assessments to support the Fishery Commission with the fisheries management of the Great Lakes.

There is a lot of monitoring being performed by federal programs, state programs, municipalities, universities and others, so the Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative was developed with the goal to coordinate all of the monitoring that’s ongoing. On a regular basis, they bring all the monitoring entities together to discuss who is collecting what and what their goals are for the next year to be sure there are no overlaps and to identify any gaps where data is not collected. This group doesn’t set priorities; it is basically a data coordination effort.

Mr. Hortness then presented a slide from a recent meeting, noting that it was a little ‘dangerous’. “It’s a 30-thousand-foot view of how is each lake doing,” he said. “There’s a lot of data behind the scenes in something like this. This is basically summarizing all of the different indicators in each of the lakes into one answer, which is very dangerous.  Sometimes it’s good just to lay that out … it could be something that’s very simplified to explain to the public, ‘Here’s the big picture, here’s where we are,’ or it can tell a very dangerous story that somebody might look at this and say, ‘Lake Erie is in bad shape and it’s getting worse.’  It doesn’t mean all of Lake Erie is that way; just because Lake Superior’s in good shape and it seems to be holding pretty well doesn’t mean that all of Lake Superior is in great shape. It’s a really high-level view.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is the major funding source of work on the U.S. side. The Interagency Task Force heads the initiative; it is a cabinet-level group.  Under that is the Regional Working Group. “Basically that’s the federal agencies that work on the Great Lakes and are working under GLRI,” he said. “That’s where most of the decisions are made on what needs to be done and where the money will go. But as part of their process, we do have a lot of check-ins with state and tribal partners, talking about priorities. … We then take that all into account, so we’re trying not to do this in a vacuum.”

Jon Hortness

There is also the Great Lakes Advisory Board which is where the Regional Working Group can go to and ask for advice. “For example, one of the questions might be, how should adaptive management be used under GLRI to achieve the best benefits and be mostly efficient?” he said. “That’s a big, overarching question that could have lots of little arms and little fingers coming out of that. It’s difficult, but the advisory board is there to provide advice on and support the Working Group.”

Under the Working Group, there are five focus areas. Each has an EPA lead and federal agency representatives that sit on each of those focus area teams and under those, there are sub-groups. “This is where we kind of evolved into,” Mr. Hortness said. “Instead of each agency taking their money and supplementing their existing programs and doing what they would normally do, we’ve really evolved into these sub-groups under the focus areas. This is where a lot of the science starts to play a huge role in determining what work gets done and how it gets done.”

For example, there’s a multi-agency team on Asian carp; another on priority watersheds, and a native fishery team. “A lot more collaboration, a lot more science involved in the planning and the work, and I think we’ve evolved over time to make that happen,” he said. “It’s worked out really well.”

Then Mr. Hortness turned to the issue of funding. He said there are basically the congressional appropriations on the U.S. side that may or may not fit really well within the lines of GLRI and/or the Water Quality Agreement, but there are some that do fit well; GLRI is obviously the major funding source on the U.S. side. Other agencies performing on-the-ground activities include the Corps, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service. There’s also the USGS, NOAA, and the EPA, and other agencies with large grant programs, such as the NRCS.

Canada was kind of lagging behind, and even prior to GLRI, they were not putting as much money into Great Lakes as we were,” Mr. Hortness said. “After GLRI came about, I think they kind of felt the peer pressure, and so after the last couple three years, there’s been a pretty major focus from the Environmental and Climate Change Canada side and the provinces to try to come up with a little more support to support the Great Lakes activities.”

In terms of funding restoration versus monitoring and research, in the first year there was $450 million, with only a small percentage for research and monitoring. Over time, it’s been stable at the $400 million level. “If I think of the USGS and NOAA budgets, which is where a lot of the science goes on, there’s a good $30-40 million going to those agencies, and most of that’s going to be science-related so it’s definitely on the upswing,” Mr. Hortness said. “I think the agencies are seeing the importance of building science into the program.”

In terms of implementation tools, there are a number of websites. is a data clearing house, a single location for data online. There is the Great Lake’s Mapper and a metadata tool where anyone collecting data can lay out the metadata, even if it’s not going to be on the web. There’s also the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS), one of several across the country.

For monitoring, there is the USGS and the buoy network which is part of GLOS, as well as some emerging tools, especially in the area of invasive species. For communications, there are several websites for that. One is the Great Lakes Information Network, which is a news service run by the Great Lakes Commission. There are agency press releases, publications, and journal articles. There are annual meetings for each lake each year, an annual conference that focuses on restoration, and a major science meeting focusing on science in the Great Lakes that alternates between the U.S. and Canada each year. There are also a lot of communication with the state and tribal partners.

Lastly, they have developed collaborative: one for phragmites, one for mussels, and one for harmful algal blooms. It’s an information sharing mechanism where all the stakeholders come together and share information, whether through a website or a webinar. Mr. Hortness said the collaborative and the webinars seem to be going over well with the public. “Folks like to have that quick information and they’ve seemed to have taken to that pretty well.”

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Photo credit:  By Djngsf – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Photo credit: Public Domain,

Photo credit:  By Ken Lund from Reno, Nevada, USA – Detroit River Draining Into Lake Erie, Grosse Ile Township, Michigan, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo credit: By Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – Alligator Hill Trail, CC BY 2.0,

Photo credit: By John Kees – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo credit: By Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States – Chicago Skyline at Dusk, CC BY 2.0,

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