Category Archives: Great Lakes

How Will Climate Change Impact the Great Lakes?

Below: A Lake Ontario shoreline

Lower water levels. Warmer air and water temperatures. Less winter ice cover. More extreme storms.

Scientists believe this is the future of the Great Lakes basin as it begins to feel the impacts of climate change.

Al Douglas is the director of the Ontario Centre for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Resources, an agency tasked with communicating the science of climate change and its impacts. He recently spoke to Rust Wire about what residents of the Great Lakes region should know and understand about climate change. Our conversation has been edited for space. (To read more on this topic, see here, the Great Lakes Regional Assessment here, a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists here or the Climate Change on the Great Lakes project here.)

Editor’s note: We first met Douglas through the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources’ Great Waters Institute, which educates journalists about environmental issues surrounding the Great Lakes. -KG

RW: “Can you start out by summarizing some of the changes and trends that you and other scientists have seen so far in the Great Lakes basin?”

AD: “It varies, because the basin is so big, it varies from place to place. The changes in climate vary a bit as you move from location to location around the Great Lakes. But there have been noted increases in temperature, since the last – well, since they have been recording temperatures, – changes …of around two degrees Celsius in some areas and a little less in other areas. Those are the average annual temperature changes that we see in different parts.  We tend to also see a bit more variability that exists with the weather. We have highs and lows, and the lengths of time that we spend in those highs and lows has been changing as well…there are also the extremes. There is lots of evidence of large storm events that have occurred in the basin, that have caused problems for communities in the Great Lakes.”

RW: “When you say ‘extreme events’ do you mean something like a large thunderstorm or snowstorm, kind of like a ‘100-year-rain’?”

AD: “That’s right, yes. That’s a good way to communicate it, people can understand those terms…But you have to be a little careful with the words, because it is not just a one-in-100 year storm, it is the odds that a one-in-100 year event will occur each year; that’s the way to look at it. The intensity of those events seems to be at a higher level that we are used to and in some cases, they seem to be popping up more often in different locations.”

RW: “With the differences in temperature you mentioned, two degrees Celsius doesn’t really sound like a lot to most people. Why is that important?”

AD: “To the common person, I think that is a fair response. People don’t usually understand the magnitude of those temperature changes or even the associated average annual precipitation. The temperature and the precipitation are presented, both of those are presented as annual averages. That’s the data we’ve got.…The magnitude of that number is not very large…The difference in temperature from when we were coming out of the last ice age, and now, given that it was only around five degrees Celsius, that’s significant. That’s half of what that temperature change is. It has taken 10,000 -12,000 years to experience five degrees Celsius, and ….when you compare it to that number, it is quite significant. And again, that number does not capture the variability; it does not capture the extremes, so you are only looking at one aspect of climate change.”

RW: “My understanding is that one result of climate change will also be lower Lake levels. It sounds counter-intuitive, since there will also be more precipitation. Can you explain that?”

AD: “You’ve got warmer air temperatures, which also leads to warmer water temperatures. So, you’ve got a heating of that system. It holds the heat an awful lot longer. So warmer water temperatures, plus warmer air temperatures means that there is shortening of the ice cover season. And we depend on the ice cover –the freezing of the Lakes- to try to control the evaporation from the Lakes. So where you’ve got a shorter ice cover season, you could potentially have larger evaporation.”

Below: A Great Lakes ship passes through the locks at the Welland Canal in St. Catherines, Ontario.

RW: “And lower water levels impacts shipping, boating, recreation, a lot of things, right?”

AD: “Changes in water levels in the Great Lakes has a number of different impacts. Shipping and navigation – it is difficult to haul some of the large loads that they have, trying to get through the system. Tourism and recreation- there are aesthetic issues, beach closures, things like that.  Fisheries- changes to the species, there are cold, cool and warm water species of fish. Where you’ve got certain populations now, and those could change into the future depending on the water temperature. Energy and industry, human health, munipicalites even consumption in some areas, all of this can be impacted by water levels.”

RW: “I think of lot of folks, particularly in the Midwest, mainly hear about rising sea levels, so they don’t really think climate change will impact them. How does climate change in the Great Lakes basin impact, say an average person living in a place like Cleveland, Milwaukee or Detroit? What changes might a person who uses the Lakes recreationally see? Why should they be concerned?”

AD: “You need to communicate the quality and quantity of water in the Lakes to be able to convince them that it is important to pay attention to…. There are huge, huge, economic benefits that are derived as a result of the waters in the Great Lakes. People often don’t understand that or appreciate it, or underestimate it. It’s a huge part of our economy. There are so many sectors- when we were talking about the water levels of the Lakes, and the number of different sectors that are impacted, these communities are dependent on water in the Great Lakes, water quality and water quantity. You know, as things change, as temperatures increase, as we see these changes to the system, we have to understand that is going to affect the economies in our communities. In addition, and this is so often undervalued or underappreciated, is the fact that it is affecting the ecosystem, the health of the ecosystems. The plants, the birds, the fish, and the intangible benefits that we derive from the biodiversity and ecosystems of the Great Lakes. As things change, so do they have to change and adapt. And where there are limits to adaptation and they are not able to adapt, we have this loss of diversity and shifting of species.”

RW: “Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you would like to mention or highlight?”

AD: “I suspect that the majority of your readers will be in the US. So, it’s worth noting the efforts of the EPA and NOAA right now and what they are doing in responding to climate change. I get news articles and different reports that come across my desk almost every day that show there is a lot more activity going on, in the States, both from the EPA and NOAA. That is very, very encouraging for me to see that happening at that level in the US…. To me, it’s that we’ve moved beyong the discussion about whether it is happening or not to ‘what sorts of activities do we need to do to make sure we’re prepared for this and able to respond to this.'”

Below: The Toledo skyline along the Maumee River, which flows into Lake Erie nearby.

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What’s the Matter With Wisconsin?

And we’re not talking about the state’s recent labor showdown.

What hasn’t gotten as much attention, is the new governor’s “assault on environmental regulations,” writes Gary Wilson in a commentary on Great Lakes Echo. Wilson cites several examples, among them: a proposal to weaken regulation around phosphorous. (More on why you should care about that and how it impacts the Great Lakes here.)

Wilson sees this as especially unfortunate, as the state was long considered a leader on environmental issues.

He tells Echo readers:

“National labor leaders rallied behind Wisconsin workers as their bargaining rights were under attack. Great Lakes environmental leaders should do no less to protect Wisconsin’s environment. Because what happens in Wisconsin impacts all of us, this isn’t the time to be on the sidelines.”

Great Lakes Echo is a project of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Check them out for other Great Lakes stories.

-KG

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Duluth Aims for 90,000 Residents

Duluth, Minnesota, is aiming to grow its population and reach 90,000 residents by 2020, according to this article in The Duluth News Tribune.

The city plans to build on its historic strengths such as shipping, and grow other areas like medicine and IT, according to the story.

It currently has about 84,000 residents, per the US Census via Wikipedia.

Do we have any readers in Duluth? What do you think?

Also, a personal observation – I was in Duluth for the first time last summer and was frankly blown away by how beautiful it was. Stunning Lake Superior views and waterfront, lots going on, and some amazing downtown architecture. I wish I could have stayed longer and I’m hoping to return again this summer!

-KG

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From Suburban Milwaukee, a History-Making Battle over Water and Sprawl

Waukesha, Wisconsin is a city whose identity has always been tied to water. In the late 1800s, the town was known for its natural springs. So fresh-tasting was the water that people traveled from around the country to share in its purported medicinal properties. Among those who sought its healing powers was first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

But there are no springs in Waukesha anymore. Over the years, as Waukesha evolved into a sprawling and affluent suburb of Milwaukee, its springs went dry or were paved over. More recently, the deep sandstone aquifer that is the town’s main source of water has been drained substantially and has become contaminated with radium.

All of which has led to the watershed moment in which Waukesha finds itself today. The suburb is seeking permission to be the first community since the Great Lakes Pact of 2008 to pipe water in from the lakes, the country’s largest source of fresh surface water.

The proposal has sparked debates about sprawl and water policy in a region where land development has far outpaced population growth. And observers are watching this case closely because it will set a precedent which could have a profound effect on urban form and rural land throughout the Great Lakes region.

Pabst Farms, a greenfield development 12 miles west of Waukesha, typifies the sprawling development that has exhausted water resources nearby.

The Great Lakes Pact was designed to protect this important freshwater source from ever being depleted by water-starved communities in the U.S. South and Southwest. Ironically, however, unsustainable development patterns in relatively water-rich places near the Great Lakes have exhausted local freshwater sources. As a result, conflicts over Great Lakes water will be fought much closer to home. Waukesha is the first battleground.

The pact allows only communities inside the Great Lakes basin to pipe water from the lakes. Waukesha itself lies entirely outside the basin, but is eligible to apply for special diversion permission because it is part of a county that lies partly inside. Under the pact, all eight governors of the Great Lakes states will have to give their approval before Waukesha is granted an exception to pipe water 15 miles west from Lake Michigan.

First, however, the plan will need to be approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It has already received the approval of Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

These decisions could open up vast new stretches of the Great Lakes region to the type of land-devouring development that already characterizes Waukesha. And it could signal more bad news for nearby rural areas, the city of Milwaukee, and other Great Lakes regions that can scarcely afford any more outward sprawl.

Proponents of Waukesha’s diversion plan point out that it has some environmental benefits. All water consumed by the community will be treated and then pumped back into Lake Michigan, so as not to lower water levels. The proposal would also allow the aquifer to begin its long recovery and would put an end to homeowners’ use of water softeners, which add chloride to the water, said Mike Hahn said, chief environmental engineer with SEWRPC.

But watchdogs say the plan will fuel sprawl and weaken the region’s urbanized areas. The most controversial portion would create a new water service territory extending beyond the boundaries of Waukesha into surrounding municipalities.

“That’s where many of us in the environmental community look at that and think, ‘That is just to allow sprawl in the western suburbs,’” said Emily Green, senior field managing organizer with the Wisconsin Sierra Club. “That’s not what the Great Lakes Pact was intended to cover.”

Local environmentalists are working to ensure that communities from outside the basin seeking Great Lakes water are held to a very high standard.

Hahn of the Planning Commission says much of the new service area is already developed and all environmentally significant areas are precluded from development. SEWPRC has officially stated that the new service area would allow for only 1,500 new homes.

James Rowen, author of the local blog The Political Environment and a former Milwaukee mayoral staffer, thinks that estimate is low. Rowen says that, given the diversion, Waukesha is likely to use its abundance of clean freshwater to lure new businesses and residents. And the likely loser in the whole scenario is Milwaukee, which for decades has been declining relative to its western suburban neighborhoods.

“The compact is a water management and conservation document first and foremost,” Rowen said, and should not be used to give “one municipality an economic advantage over another, or one state over another.”

As Milwaukee has lost manufacturing jobs, suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties have beckoned to businesses and residents from the city. As the region sprawled in the nineties, its population grew only two percent, but 18 percent of its farmland was lost to development.

David Rusk of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago examined the insidious pattern of low-growth sprawl in his report “Sprawl, Race and Concentrated Poverty in Southeast Wisconsin” [PDF] in 2001. He found that between 1950 and 1990, the footprint of the Milwaukee-Waukesha metropolitan area grew at eight times the rate of its population.

New greenfield developments have had a particularly strong pull for the region’s middle- and upper-classes. The “secession” of affluent residents from the city of Milwaukee was the subject of a 1999 report by Marc Levine at the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The report noted that exurban regions of the metro area saw a 60 percent increase in their share of people with incomes greater than $100,000 between 1987 and 1997. Meanwhile, the city of Milwaukee’s population of high earners fell by 19 percent. At the time, Waukesha County contained 44 percent of the region’s affluent residents.

In turn, low-growth sprawl has widened the chasm between rich and poor, Levine wrote. The Brookings Institution recently named it the most segregated area in the country.

“Metropolitan Milwaukee has already become a highly polarized region, with growing exurban pockets of affluence more and more disconnected from an increasingly impoverished central city,” Levine wrote. “The exodus damages the city’s tax base and weakens its consumer markets, and hinders urban revitalization efforts.”

Further growth in Waukesha is likely to come at the expense of the rest of the region, said Rowen.

“Even if the city of Milwaukee were to sell Lake Michigan water to the city of Waukesha, the economic benefit would be a pittance, compared to the economic benefit transferred in terms of jobs and development,” he said.

That’s why local activists have been adamant that Waukesha control its growth and its impact on the environment and find another way to secure safe drinking water. The suburb has been making do by pulling water from a combination of deep and shallow wells and using a special filtration process. Activists say they should continue to explore alternatives like these, rather than import lake water.

It’s not just urban contingents that have raised concerns about Waukesha’s potential growth. Residents of the nearby town of Waukesha — a rural community that borders the city of Waukesha — aren’t happy about the expanded water service area either. Angie Van Scyoc, chairman of the town of Waukesha, said the plan, as it is currently written, threatens the rural character of her community, raising the threat of annexation.

“Many communities feel like the towns around them are there for their consumption,” she said. “We don’t want to be consumed by them. We want to be independent.”

This post was originally written for Streetsblog Capitol Hill.

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What’s the next Asian Carp?

For some less-than-reassuring reading, take a look at this piece in the Grand Rapids Press, which highlights some potential invasive species threats to the Great Lakes.

We’ve all heard about the threat posed by Asian carp, but there are other species that could hurt the Lakes, this article explains.

Among the 75 contenders: the northern snakehead (pictured above and subject of the movies ‘Snakehead Terror’ and ‘Frankenfish,’ according to Wikipedia), monkey goby, New Zealand mudsnail, killer shrimp, golden mussel and hydrilla, according to the Press.

-KG

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Good Thing: Keeping Raw Sewage out of Lake Erie

Last week, the US EPA and Department of Justice announced a $3 billion settlement with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) to help keep untreated raw sewage from flowing into Lake Erie.

A bit of background: the agency is considered in violation of the 1972 Clean Water Act because of the sewage overflows that sometimes happen during rainstorms. (You can read more about the mechanics and science of how and why this happens here.) Cleveland isn’t alone in this problem; a number of Great Lakes cities discharge billions of gallons in sewage every year.

You can read the announcement here and more history and information about the EPA’s case against NEORSD here. You can also read about “Project Clean Lake” from NEORSD here.

The EPA estimates NEORSD discharges almost five billion gallons of untreated, raw sewage

approximately 3,000 to 4,000 times per year into Lake Erie and nearby rivers. The settlement will require the sewer district to spend approximately $3 billion to install pollution controls, including the construction of seven tunnel systems ranging from two to five miles in length that will reduce the discharges of untreated, raw sewage to approximately 537 million gallons per year.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports in this interesting and helpful Q&A this will  unfortunately  likely mean higher sewer bills for Cleveland and surrounding communities, tripling bills over 25 years in order for the District to be in compliance with the Clean Water Act. However, the project is expected to generate jobs.

As we’ve reported before, sewage overflows are a serious problem for the Lakes. A study in August recommended Great Lakes cities 1) separate miles of combined sewer pipes into sanitary and storm sewers and 2) install “green” infrastructure — such as rain gardens, vegetated roofs and pervious pavement — to capture and cleans this storm water and reduce the volume of storm water flowing off the landscape.

-KG

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Businessweek on ‘The Fall of Niagara Falls’

Really interesting article in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek about Niagara Falls, New York, and some of the problems it faces despite being next to what is litterally one of the largest tourist attractions in the world.

The article details how Niagara Falls

“encompasses just about every mistake a city could make… a 1960s mayor’s decision to bulldoze his quaint downtown and replace it with a bunch of modernist follies. There was a massive hangar-like convention center designed by Philip Johnson; Cesar Pelli’s glassy indoor arboretum, the Wintergarden, which was finally torn down because it cost a fortune to heat through the Lake Erie winter; a shiny office building known locally as the “Flashcube,” formerly the headquarters of a chemical company and now home to a trinket market. Once a hydropowered center of industry, Niagara Falls is now one of America’s most infamous victims of urban decay, hollowed out by four decades of job loss, mafia infiltration, political corruption, and failed get-fixed-quick schemes.”

My take-away after reading this article: cities can’t look for ‘silver bullet’ fixes. Convention center. Giant mall. Casinos. Sounds like Niagara Falls has tried everything with little success.

A new mayor has made some folks optimistic, the story explains, by promoting eco-tourism and trying to attract companies that specialize in alternative energy.

What do you think after reading this story?

I’ve been to the Falls a number of times, but always to the Canadian side, never to the New York side.

-KG

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