The International Joint Commission (IJC), an organisation established by a 1909 treaty between Canada and the US to assess the adequacy of the restoration of the Great Lakes, has stated in its eleventh biennial report that whilst there are many ongoing programmes to restore the Lakes, these are proceeding at a slow pace.

“We see no evidence based on the nature and pace of current activities that restoration will happen within the next generation’s life time,” said Herb Gray, Chair of the IJC’s Canadian section.

Although the Great Lakes are a good source of treatable drinking water, the public cannot always safely swim at all of the Lakes’ beaches, nor can they safely eat many of the fish that live there, says the IJC. Pollutants include polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins and mercury.

The IJC has focused on three priority themes for the restoration of the Lakes. The two governments need to develop and use reliable ways to measure trends in the levels and effects of pollutants. Authorities also need to restore the chemical integrity of ecosystems in the Great Lakes basin. In particular, the movement of toxic chemicals from sediments to wildlife, fish, and human tissues needs to be prevented. This includes remediating contaminated sediment.

Finally, alien invasive species are a significant problem in some areas of the Lakes, including purple loosestrife – a tall marsh plant, sea lampreys and zebra mussels. Solutions include making guidelines for the discharge of ballast water mandatory, and the design and use of economic incentives to encourage ship owners to improve ballast management practices.

“The bilateral commitment to restore the greatness of the Great Lakes remains incomplete, said Dennis Schornack, Chair of the IJC’s US Section. Encouraging progress is being made, but at too slow a pace. Cleaning up contaminated sediments and stopping the invasion of alien species are two top priorities for restoring the chemical and biological integrity of this vast and vital ecosystem.”

A report published last year revealed that the Lakes are able to cleanse themselves of pollutants as the surrounding air becomes less loaded with contaminants (see related story).

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