While Lake Ontario’s ecosystem health is “fair,” persistent concerns–such as invasive species and the impact of climate change–remain, according to the latest reports on the Great Lakes.
The 2022 State of the Great Lakes and Progress Report of the Parties reports, both released in late July, mark 50 years of cooperation between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment and Climate Change Canada.
“Over the past 50 years, the United States and Canada have made tremendous progress working together to protect the Great Lakes and support a thriving regional economy,” says EPA administrator Michael Regan. “We remain committed to safeguarding this shared treasure for present and future generations.”
The cross-border effort is intended to help restore and protect the shared environmental resource and uses nine indicators of ecosystem health including water quality, habitat, land usage, and climate trends. Along with a rating of “poor,” “fair” or “good,” the reports give insight into long-term trends.
The health of the entire Great Lakes ecosystem is rated as “fair” and “unchanging,” meaning there are some components in acceptable condition and the metrics show no overall change in that condition. However, when studied individually, the lakes are more variable.
In Lake Ontario, the overall ecosystem has been rated as “fair” and “unchanging to improving,” meaning some indicators are seeing improvement over a 10-year period.
For example, from 2010 to 2019, Lake Ontario beaches were open for over 90 percent of all possible days, meaning they were meeting their goal to be safe for swimming and recreational use.
Similarly, the drinking water supply, which serves 19.5 million U.S. residents, is high quality and safe. Over 10 years, an average of 99.7 percent of municipal residential quality tests in Lake Ontario met standards. Assessment of shallow wells also shows groundwater to be rated as “fair” to “good” across the entire Lake Ontario basin.
Toxic chemicals, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which can cause breathing difficulties and liver abnormalities, were higher in Lakes Erie and Ontario, but were rated as “improving.” Polychlorinated biphenyl was still apparent in fish caught in the lakes, but levels have declined substantially since 2000 and appear to be stabilizing. Last year, the New York Department of Health relaxed recommendations for women and children on eating fish caught out of waterways, including salmon from Lake Ontario.
“Holding polluters accountable ensures anglers, both expert and novice, can enjoy fishing state waters with the information they need to determine when and where they can safely eat their catch,” said Basil Seggos,commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, at the time.
The natural lake sturgeon population is showing improvement as well, with the reports noting a U.S. Geological Survey field crew collecting a 61-inch, 70-pound female sturgeon on the shores of the Genesee River in Monroe County.
On the other hand, invasive species of dreissenid mussels, more commonly known as zebra and quagga mussels, are increasing at deep zones in Lake Ontario, which could disrupt the delicate food webs in the water. Development of invasive plant life in wetlands, such as typha cattails, are also rated as “poor” in Lake Ontario.
“Wetlands that used to be diverse mosaics lost a lot of that ecological diversity,” said Jim Howe, a senior policy adviser for freshwater at the Nature Conservancy, in a previous conversation with the Beacon on the devastating effect cattails had on Eel Bay.
The 2022 State of the Great Lakes report also notes a 26 percent increase in the number of people living in the Great Lakes basin since the 1970s, which has resulted in significant changes in land use. Lake Superior, which has no major cities outside of Thunder Bay, Canada, is the only lake that still has good forest and land cover. While the reports suggest that Lake Erie has been hit hardest by altered land use, Lake Ontario is also rated as “poor” when it comes to hardened shorelines.
Recently, Mike Healy, a resident of Sodus Bay, said he was lucky enough to get a grant for a seawall on his property, but even then, he still lost his boathouse in the 2017 Lake Ontario floods. He believes the process for hardening shorelines is difficult for private citizens to pull off piecemeal by themselves and they need more support.
“I’d take a loan in a heartbeat. I’m not looking for a handout, just some help,” Healy said, referring to the resilient New York revolving loan program, which is currently in committee in the state Senate.
Hand in hand with the human impact, the reports also note a number of effects from climate change. From 1973 to 2020, maximum ice coverage is in decline across all lakes with one study showing Lake Ontario losing as much as 88 percent maximum coverage. Scientists are just now understanding how ice fits into the lake ecosystem and warn losing it could affect the biodiversity of the area.
Also likely connected to climate change, the reports note that precipitation and temperature levels for the Great Lakes are on the rise, both of which could damage water quality due to runoff, changes to contaminant and nutrient cycling, and increases in algal blooms.
While the reports note a short-term trend in rising water levels, particularly in Lake Ontario, they do not mention any causes such as the controversial Plan 2014, and caution against accepting rising water levels as a long-term trend. Howe and Healy both think, however, that it is a foregone conclusion that these events will continue.
“Given climate change, we’re all bracing for it to get higher, honestly. These are events that will happen with an increased frequency and we need to be better prepared,” Howe says.
“Will people who live in Rochester or Geneseo or Livonia care about Sodus? Maybe not,” Healy says. “But we’re all going to have to deal with climate change eventually and better infrastructure really does help us all.”