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Treasuring our Great Lakes

Summer 2015 Issue

Our treasured Great Lakes are one of the largest freshwater ecosystems on Earth. New York State is fortunate to have a 700-mile "north coast" along Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence and Niagara Rivers. More than a third of New York is part of the Great Lakes watershed.

Historic discharges of PCBs and other persistent toxic contaminants have fouled this ecosystem. Nutrient pollution was such that at one time Lake Erie was designated as "dead." Since the early 1970s, tremendous progress has been made to restore the water quality and eco-system health of the Great Lakes basin. With the comprehensive Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, progress accelerated dramatically, though much work remains. For our part, New Yorkers are implementing numerous restoration projects and have developed an exciting Action Agenda to propel further progress.

In Lake Ontario, for example, numerous sources of toxic contaminants have been remediated, lowering levels of contaminants in fish and wildlife. In 2015, fish consumption advisories were relaxed for five sport fish species, and lake sturgeon and bald eagles have returned. Additional projects are managing certain invasive species outbreaks.

Excess nutrient phosphorus levels in some near-shore portions of Lake Ontario, with associated algae blooms, remain a problematic issue. At the same time, levels of phosphorus in the offshore waters have declined dramatically and, in some instances, may be deemed to be too low. Research and assessments are underway to better understand and address the sources and ecological dynamics of this problem.

In Lake Erie, environmental cleanups and restoration are helping to drive urban re-development along the Buffalo River corridor, Buffalo's harbor, and the lake's greater shoreline. Approximately 1 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment have been removed from the Buffalo River, and 15 habitat projects are in progress. The Buffalo Sewer Authority is implementing a long-term program to significantly reduce CSO discharges, and the Western NY Stormwater Coordinating Committee, which collaborates among county and municipal governments and sewer authorities, is improving the management of polluted runoff and implementing green infrastructure throughout the region.

The Great Lakes are dynamic systems. As conditions change, new challenges arise. Harmful and large scale algal blooms have returned to western Lake Erie along the coasts of Ohio and Michigan. The increasingly severe and fluctuating weather associated with climate change needs to be understood and managed as best as possible. Invasive species and their spread (e.g., the risk of Asian carp), pose almost an existential threat to today's Great Lakes. Funding for clean water infrastructure remains a critical concern, as are the numerous contaminated toxic sites that also remain.

Current and future work to restore the Great Lakes will require more partnerships and collaboration. Under the Action Agenda framework, NYSDEC is seeking the participation of stakeholder work groups to develop sub-basin watershed work plans and to implement projects toward bringing our Great Lakes "all the way back."

See DEC's Great Lakes Action Agenda webpage to get involved.

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