Environment
6:00 am
Tue May 27, 2014

Climate Change Already Impacting Great Lakes, Report Calls For Immediate Action

Eroding soils entering Lake Michigan
Credit C Nenn

A group of 24 scientists and policymakers are clearly sounding a climate change alarm, but are also handing the country a blueprint. It’s called the Great Lakes Restoration and Climate Change report.

Jenny Kehl spearheaded the action plan. She directs the Center for Water Policy at UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences and says climate change could wield a crippling blow to the Great Lakes region.

“We’re jeopardizing our capacity to produce agriculture in the same way; our capacity to produce energy in the same way and our capacity to maintain the quality of life that we currently have in the Great Lakes system,” Kehl says.

Earlier this spring, Kehl organized a three-day summit at The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread in Racine.

“I think one of the reasons we were able to pull such a phenomenal group together with such short notice is because they all have a sense of how urgent it is to address climate change in the Great Lakes is,” Kehl says.

Summits may not always be synonymous with action, but Kehl says, this one was. The group concluded that the impacts of climate change on the Great Lakes system are "already urgent and consequential" and agreed on four areas of concern and strategies to address them.

1. Nonpoint Source Pollution, Nearshore Health and Toxic Substances

The Great Lakes must be approached as one watershed, according to Val Klump, a participant in the Wingspread summit. He is a senior scientist with UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences and has been studying the Great Lakes biogeochemistry.

Klump says the region must control pollution heading into the lakes. "It’s a thorny issue, but we have to get to where we don’t degrade the water at all - in order words we have to get to zero discharge – the water that we put back is as good quality or better quality than what we take out; we don’t know that now,” Klump says.

2. Invasive Species and Habitat and Wildlife Protection and Restoration

Kehl says the Great Lakes are already being impacted by invasive species and climate change is impacting air and water temperatures.

"One example is plants," she says. "They'll begin to bud at a different time of year and that one change affects the capacity of wildlife and plantlife to thrive."

3. Agriculture Production and Consumption in the Great Lakes Basin

Another area of concern is agriculture. Growing seasons are extending, which seems like a positive. But, Kehl says, farmers will need to use more water and fertilizers. Then add extreme fluctuating weather patterns and entire harvests could be destroyed.

“There’s a lot of discussion of crops being damaged through drought in the Great Lakes region and a lot of that is not currently linked with climate change,” Kehl says.

4. Energy Production and Consumption in the Great Lakes Basin

The report also stresses the need to reduce greenhouse gasses - that means agreeing on comprehensive policies about how we generate and use energy, says executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative David Ullrich.

“We need to look at it from beginning to end – from extraction, to transportation, to refinement, to consumption," he says. "We can’t do that as individual cities. We need much stronger pushing at the state, provincial and federal levels on getting these carbon emissions down."

Some the of Report's Recommendations

  • Expand the region’s renewable energy portfolio.
  • Involve farmers in nutrient and land-use policy formation.
  • Galvanize diverse constituencies of the Great Lakes environment.
  • Adopt a watershed-based approach to pollution control.
  • Calculate the “virtual water” used to produce food and goods.
  • Aligning Farm Bill incentives with local stewardship priorities.
  • Account for the true cost of water.

The report came to the conclusion that as "the frequency and severity of weather patterns shift with population growth and increasing consumption, the Great Lakes region will require a greater capacity to address water quantity and quality issues that will ultimately impact economic stability and ecosystem health."

Scientist Val Klump says making these changes will be expensive.

Right now, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been funding restoration projects. “The Initiative has got to be changed from an initiative to something sustainable," Klump says. "Initiative means a one-shot deal, but a one-shot deal is not enough in the Great Lakes. The estimate for making the system sustainable and improving water quality is in the order of tens of billions of dollars."

However, just last week, a conservative think-tank the National Center for Public Policy Research issued the top 10 reasons Congress should ignore advice to pass major legislation to combat climate change.