Great Lakes map shows the way to combat ‘death by a thousand cuts’


The Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon works to integrate education, outreach and research to enhance and preserve freshwater resources. Photo via

A new comprehensive map of the Great Lakes shows areas that have experienced the greatest cumulative impact from environmental stressors, such as pollution, invasive species and climate change, as well as areas with the greatest ecological benefit to humans.

The map, developed during the past three years by the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping project, was created to provide a tool to help determine how to invest resources in Great Lakes restoration and conservation projects.

“There’s never been a comprehensive map done in the Great Lakes of all the cumulative stressors that occur,” explained Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute. “So having a map provides a very useful tool, a very visual tool, for people to look at the whole region, identify where the key areas of stress are, and then, using that, we can identify whether we are really focusing our restoration efforts in the right locations or not.”

The federal government originally planned to invest up to $5 billion during a five- to 10-year period through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an amount Steinman said he isn’t sure will be reached, because the money has to be approved and appropriated on an annual basis by Congress.

Wanting to ensure that the money being spent on restoration of the Great Lakes by the GLRI and additional projects was being responsibly administered, GLEAM began, in 2009, to study 34 of the greatest environmental stressors on the Great Lakes. Seven categories were identified: aquatic habitat alterations, climate change, coastal development, fisheries management, invasive species, non-point source pollution and toxic chemical pollution.

Of the five lakes, Lake Michigan came out in the middle: in better shape than lakes Ontario and Erie, but not as healthy as Huron and Superior.

 Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping
The map by the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping project indicates the level of cumulative stress throughout the region. Courtesy GLEAM

Businesses that are directly tied to the Great Lakes might already be experiencing negative impacts from the deteriorated health of the water system, while for many not directly tied to the lakes, it might seem like a far off future concern.

“If your business is related to the Great Lakes at all, knowing where those stressors are and what the types of stressors are in your area, this can help you in terms of strategizing for the long term,” Steinman said.

“For example, if you own a marina or are involved in any sort of business chain dealing with recreational or commercial boating, the lower water levels associated with climate change are going to impact you in the long term, either directly or indirectly. Businesses need to start thinking about that — how will they adapt to this and can they adapt? Do they need to start looking at alternative business plans or scenarios to deal with the changes associated with altering climate, whether it’s warming temperatures, lowering water levels?

“We are already seeing that take place in the agricultural sector, where these producers rely on the weather and the land and the climate for their product. Are they going to start changing the types of crops they grow? Will their watering regimen change? These people who are really tied to the land in an intimate way recognize these stresses and what it means to them.”

Approximately 20 core members have participated in the GLEAM project, including Steinman and researchers from the University of Michigan; it involved surveying 161 researchers and natural resource managers from across the basin.

“What was interesting was that there is no one stressor that appears to be dominant throughout the entire Great Lakes,” Steinman said. “There seems to be a series of different stressors that influence the Great Lakes in different locations. What that means is that the Great Lakes are basically experiencing a death by a thousand cuts — little by little by little — and we can’t focus our attention on just one problem, like just one invasive species or too much nutrients. Depending on where you are in the Great Lakes, it’s a different combination of these stressors that are having an impact. I think that was a little surprising.

“What we also found, because we complemented the cumulative stress with the ecological benefits or the ecosystem services that are provided by nature that benefit humans, is that the areas with the greatest stress are also the areas where the greatest benefits are provided to society. That is a really interesting finding, because, one, it means if we can get rid of those stresses, we are going to get a lot more benefits to society, and that’s a good thing. But the challenge is much greater, because that’s where all the stressors occur.”

Steinman hopes federal and regional decision makers will use the map to help guide restoration efforts. The map can help determine which geographic areas to focus on and what stressors will be the most beneficial to allocate resources to combat.

“Often, when we do restoration, it is very site specific, and the reality is that these stressors don’t exist just in that small space,” Steinman said. “They are connected — they are hydrologically connected throughout the entire Great Lakes. So we have to recognize that a restoration in one very localized place may only have a very short-term benefit, because that stress may come from someplace else and replace the restoration that you’ve done. Hopefully, that kind of knowledge will help people in terms of thinking about that restoration and how best to do it so it has a long, lasting impact. By combining it with the ecosystem services, they could know what they can expect in return for those restoration activities.”

Additionally, areas that currently have low environmental impact with high human benefits might be a focus for preservation.

The project is being funded by a $500,000 grant from Bloomfield Hills-based Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation. Additional data will continue to be collected, and a second phase is planned for 2013 that will focus on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

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