As extreme weather harms the Great Lakes, the funding and research needed to adapt to climate change come slowly

Massive flooding from a 4.5-inch rain soaked the Detroit area last month, overloading local sewer systems and pushing sewage into rivers and lakes. Harmful toxins from a huge algae bloom in Lake Erie temporarily shut down drinking water in Toledo, Ohio. Sometimes even an inch or two of rain in Chicago can overwhelm the city's sewer system and flush wastewater into Lake Michigan.

Though recent episodes from the region's battle with a changing climate made national and international headlines this summer, Kevin Strychar, a professor of oceanography at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., says the real need is for adjustments to long-term climate problems rather than short-term fixes.

The changing climate is directly harming the Great Lakes by contaminating drinking water and beckoning invasive species and infectious pathogens with warmer temperatures, Strychar and 35 co-authors wrote in the climate change-centric chapter of a recent report from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

This cocktail of negative environmental effects has even pushed tourism-dependent economies -- towns and cities that generate large portions of their revenue from activities like boating, fishing and swimming -- into rough waters as fewer visitors from landlocked regions come to the Great Lakes to cool off, the report noted.

"Climate change has occurred in the past, but this time, the frequency of change is too fast, not allowing animals enough time to adapt," Strychar, whose work frequently revolves around climate change, said in a release following the report's publication. "Ignoring the problem is no longer a solution. Denying the plausibility of climate change is foolhardy."

The average surface temperature for all five lakes has risen by 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Strychar -- an assertion borne out in data gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Big lakes are less studied than oceans

While rising ocean levels are a common example of the effects of the warming planet, large lakes often escape the climate conversation. And, according to Strychar, freshwater bodies like the Great Lakes are not tracked with the same types of advanced technology as oceans.

"The science of oceanography is almost ten years ahead of the science of Great Lakes research," he said, adding that he was only aware of buoys in the Great Lakes.

There are five active buoys in the Great Lakes, according to NOAA, none of which are in Lake Superior or Lake Ontario. The buoys collect data on air and water temperatures, wind speeds and directions, as well as wave patterns, but cannot scan for an increased presence of crippling algae clumps or E. coli cells, for instance.

Many of the government-backed measures to test salt water and fresh water are out of date, Strychar said, adding that the "U.S. Coast Guard monitors invasive species in the same manner as it did in 1914."

Without more advanced technology -- like underwater flow cytometers, which can take up to 10,000 images an hour of particles, while beaming real-time data back to a lab; devices that identify unknown microorganisms; or aquatic mass spectrometers -- Great Lakes researchers will continue to lag behind their ocean-based peers, Strychar said.

Scientists use these instruments, which Strychar estimated vary in cost between $175,000 and $300,000, to track, genetically identify and photograph infectious pathogens such as E. coli, toxic algae plumes, invasive species, pharmaceutical drugs that have entered the water supply and other health threats that escape the naked eye.

'Swimmer's itch' may come next


The rash known as "swimmer's itch" is particularly worrisome to Strychar. Caused by a parasite that lives in waterfowl and is connected with duck feces, swimmer's itch tends to briefly irritate one's skin but can advance to targeting tissues and organs.

And, as the climate has warmed in the United Kingdom, he said, one swimmer's itch species has reached that tissue- and organ-targeting level of aggression and could spread to other continents -- transmitted by migrating duck species.

"Imagine that getting established in the Great Lakes," Strychar said. Swimmer's itch symptoms become increasingly worse after more exposure, he said.

Most of the money designated for environmental projects in the Great Lakes, however, is for cleanup and restoration efforts, rather than preventive measures, and is allocated by the federal government.

In 2009, the Obama administration, under the guidance of a coterie of 11 federal agencies, created the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to clean up toxins, fight invasive species, protect watersheds from polluted runoff, restore wetlands and track projects from other "strategic partners."

The programs received $475 million during the first fiscal year, dropping to $300 million in 2010 and onward.

"The vast majority is money that has to be spent because someone in the past externalized their problems or greed into public resources," said Russell Van Herik, executive director of the Great Lakes Protection fund, a private endowment launched in 1989 by the seven of the eight Great Lakes-adjacent states, of the amount of money spent to protect the region.

Aside from federal dollars, Van Herik said, private philanthropies contribute about $30 million a year and his fund allocates about $3 million to specific proposals annually.

More intense rains flush in more pollutants

The growing intensity and frequency with which rainfall pounds the region -- eroding ecosystems and changing the directions and patterns in which water flows -- are a centerpiece of the area's changing climate, Van Herik said.

Two examples of projects the firm is helping develop are funding agricultural ditches that move water with less erosion and orchestrating "smart" drainage systems that can funnel sewer overflows from sanitary water supplies during a storm.

"We've seen a lot more people thinking about how to design those projects," Van Herik said, adding that the fund's goal is to "change how future dollars are spent," not focus on cleanup projects.

According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, the frequency of heavy downpours has increased 37 percent in the Upper Midwest during the past 50 years, and regional farmers have responded by adding more drainage to their land.

Perhaps counterintuitively, in certain circumstances -- such as the heavily reported algae blooms in Lake Erie -- the advent of more advanced drainage systems intended to funnel excess water away from farmland has only exacerbated environmental harm to the lakes.

Instead of allowing local farmlands and crops to retain precipitation, drainage mechanisms -- most commonly "drainage tiles," corrugated plastic pipes with tiny perforations -- frequently discharge pooling water into the local body of water, carrying sediment, pesticides, fertilizers and nutrients downstream.

Drinking water at risk

While chemicals are never a welcome addition to a city's drinking water, phosphorus can have a more pernicious result: In large doses, the element can stimulate excess growth and clog drinking water.

An east-west latitudinal line between Minneapolis and Oswego, N.Y., which is on the southeast shore of Lake Ontario, denotes the cities and municipalities on the Great Lakes whose water is severely at risk, according to David Rankin, program director for the Great Lakes Protection Fund.

Cities south of that imaginary line, he said, rely heavily on the Great Lakes for water. "Water's the face of climate change," Rankin said.

Strychar, who has been frustrated by the funding process for Great Lakes environmental projects, suggested that installing pathogen-detecting instruments in the hulls of cargo ships and smaller boats would be beneficial.

"What we're seeing is more and more invasive species becoming established," he said, adding that he has seen species indigenous to tropical climates steadily move farther north year by year. "We are seeing more beach closures, because of the pathogens."

Vocally concerned about the region's health and how climate change will affect his children and future generations, Strychar said the Great Lakes ecosystems may soon reach a tipping point beyond which the region would never be able to fully recover.

"I think it's going to take a decade for change," he said. "I don't know if we have a decade."

Twitter: @benhulac | Email:

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