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The North American Great Lakes: A True Blessing

As the Director of Strategy and Operations for Global Water Works Connect, I have been immersed in all areas of water for almost a year.


I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in the 50’s and 60’s. Lake Erie was a big part of my life. We swam in the lake and we fished in the lake. In the winter the lake froze into striking wave formations. The wind off of the lake in the winter was viciously cold and in the summer, because the lake was shallow, it warmed up nicely for swimming. Occasionally my dad would rent a rowboat and take us fishing, but typically we fished off of the rocks at White City Beach. Because the lake was shallow, a storm could turn it into a challenge for boaters very quickly.

With the industry in Cleveland, the waste that was dumped into the lake was significant. By the late 50’s into the 60’s the lake was so polluted it was considered to be dead. We will come back to this later.


Some Great Lakes Facts

84% of North America’s surface fresh water is in the Great Lakes

About 21% of the world supply of surface fresh water is in the Great Lakes

The Lakes support 25% of Canadian agriculture and 7% of the American farm production

The Great Lakes support a population of 30 million people, roughly 10% of the U.S. and 30% of the Canadian population.

The Great Lakes span 750 miles from West to East

The Great Lakes are situated across nine state territory borders

Commerce on the Great Lakes (Considered by many as the Growth Engine of North America)

From fur trading in the 17th century to modern day the areas waterways and terrain have made it an easy place for goods to exchange hands

If the Great Lakes Region were a country it would have the third largest economy in the world.

It accounts for more than 50% of the U.S. / Canadian bilateral border trade, $278 billion each year.

Over 200 million tons of cargo are shipped annually on the Great Lakes.

Around the Great Lakes, 107 million people producing a GDP of $6 trillion and 51 million jobs

Commerce on the Great Lakes Since the 1700's

Commerce on the Great Lakes Since the 1700's

What Happened

The greater area of the Great Lakes was used as a waste disposal site and became heavily polluted throughout the late 1900’s. Lake Erie in the 60’s was proclaimed dead. It was said that it could no longer support any biological life. Waste, sewage and other pollutants were destroying the lake. In addition to this, an influx of algae into Lake Erie changed the lake's composition. Some algae settled to the bottom. The rest washed ashore to ruin the swimming areas. The algae robbed the lake of oxygen, disrupting the ecosystem by causing “dead zones” where life could not survive..

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June 22, 1969, Cuyahoga River Fire

June 22, 1969, Cuyahoga River Fire

Wake Up Call

The lake became increasingly polluted and on June 22, 1969 around 12PM, floating pieces of oil slick debris on the Cuyahoga River, which dumps into Lake Erie, caught fire. It was ignited by sparks from a passing train. The fire reached heights of over 5 stories and lasted 20 to 25 minutes. The river had caught fire 13 times beginning in 1868. The most significant blaze was in 1952, but the 1969 blaze became a turning point for the river, and environmental legislation in the United States.

Inspired by the June 22, 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire, Congress was determined to resolve the issues around land pollution. Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed into law January 1, 1970. This act helped establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). One of the first legislations put forward by the EPA was the Clean Water Act (1972). This act legislated that all rivers in the U.S. be hygienic enough for swimming and fishing in the water by 1983.

We were supposed to be swimming in Lake Erie, but humans created a situation where it was unsafe, and the lakes’ health was being decimated.

And so, it was, taking an extreme tragedy of unimaginable pollution to get the government to wake up and protect our freshwater system.

Algae Blooms Seen From Space

Algae Blooms Seen From Space

Constant Vigilance of Our Freshwater

In the early 2000’s Lake Erie did get cleaned up which brought back great fishing and recreation. This was very good for the region. A clean lake was producing a higher quality of drinking water.

Also in the early 2000’s, Lake Erie was being subjected to nutrient pollution that is man-made and causing the algae blooms in the lake.

The algae blooms beyond being unsightly and foul-smelling, negatively impacts the water quality of Lake Erie. Algae blooms can be harmful to the health of biological creatures. They contain cyanobacteria, also called blue green algae, that can produce the toxin microcystin, potentially harmful to humans and wildlife. Boiling the water will not eliminate these toxins.

The algae are primarily produced from phosphates delivered to the lake from fertilizers in farm runoff. To date, the state and federal governments have allowed the farmers to “self-govern” their runoff. I am not sure what self-govern means. Can a farmer regulate the amount of rain that falls to cause fertilizer run-off? The goal is to have it all cleaned up by 2025. Officials agree they do not have any idea how this will get done.

In August 2014, 500,000 people around Toledo, Ohio, had their water supplies disrupted due to the impact of the algae.

One official commented: “When the algae blooms in Western Lake Erie can be seen from space, it doesn’t take an expert to understand that this is becoming a crisis.” Oops: do we need another fire?

Where Are We?

Daily about 44.1 billion gallons of water are drawn from the Great Lakes. This water is predominantly used for public, domestic and industrial use, irrigation and livestock. Heavy industry, manufacturing and agriculture are primarily responsible for polluting the Great Lakes.

There are concerns about eating fish from the Great Lakes. Eating polluted fish is the primary source of mercury in humans. Mercury is a neurotoxin. In a study Mercury in Newborns in The Lake Superior Basin conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health, 8% of tested newborns had mercury levels above the U.S. EPA reference dose for methylmercury, which is the form of mercury found in fish.

To summarize another major issue, a quote from the vintage movie (December 22, 1967) The Graduate: “Plastics, my boy, plastics.” One of the biggest challenges now facing the Great Lakes is pollution from plastics. 22 million pounds of plastic enter the Great Lakes each year. This is part of the 60 million plastic bottles that end up in landfills each day. No matter what you are currently doing, only 29% of plastic bottles are actually recycled. We can change this!,and%2029.7%20percent%20in%202016.

The Great Lakes are a true blessing for all of North America and the world as are all of our natural supplies of fresh drinking water. It is up to us, who have been given dominion over the earth by our Creator to protect all of the natural resources He has provided. Gen 1:26 “Then God said let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

What can You Do?

Be informed

Water is personal and local. Each of us needs to be involved in insuring the water we use is clean as it needs to be.

Stay informed on all things water. It will affect you. Global Water Works Connect is an ideal place to get the latest information on all things water. You can ask questions and get answers from experts. You will have the opportunity to collaborate with water experts, water enthusiasts, water technology innovators and water change agents.

For the Great Lakes, you can go to the Alliance for the Great Lakes Action Center.

Stop drinking water that is packaged in plastic. You should also know whether BPA is being used to coat the inside of your reusable drinking water bottle.

Have your tap water tested.

There are many companies that will test your tap water. Google "Companies that test Tap Water," and make a selection.

Learn and stay informed about the water quality in your community. Clean drinking water is necessary for survival.


James A Watkins from Chicago on August 20, 2020:

I very much enjoyed your learned and well-written article. I grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan and this is a subject dear to my heart. Thank you.

Perspycacious on August 12, 2020:

Thanks for my first geography lesson in some time. ; - )

Frank Slovenec (author) from San Francisco, CA on August 12, 2020:

Lake Michigan is fully in the U.S.. The balance of the Great Lakes have shared borders, U.S. and Canada

Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on August 11, 2020:

Good article. Are the Great Lake borders all within the USA as indicated in one of your illustrations. I thought we shared them with Canada.

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