Published March 2018

Joel Brammeier, President and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, oversees a staff of more than 25 professionals and 15,000 volunteers dedicated to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes. Joel has a strong track record of advancing critical conservation efforts and is the author of a first-of-its-kind report describing options for separating the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River basins to stop the spread of invasive species.

Joel spoke to the Oak Brook (Chicago) Trout Unlimited chapter on the state of the Great Lakes and federal policy news that could impact them in May 2017. He reported on what the Alliance had heard from members of Congress and key stakeholders and gave an overview of what the Alliance and its partners were doing to protect the lakes. Joel also commented on the status of invasive species prevention efforts, including Asian carp control measures and then provided a further update on the status of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Brandon Road Study which was completed in February 2017 and released in August 2017 to the public for comments. The Brandon Road Study included recommendations supporting additional measures to block the migration of Asian Carp to Lake Michigan via the Chicago Area Waterway System. This article provides an update on recent financial support by Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Ontario for Asian carp control measures while Illinois funding stalls.

Mission of the Alliance for the Great Lakes
“The Alliance for the Great Lakes works to protect the Great Lakes for today and tomorrow,” according to Joel Brammeier.  “We involve tens of thousands of people each year in advocacy, volunteering, education, and research to ensure the lakes are healthy and safe for all. Our funding comes from a mix of sources including individual donors and foundations.”

Overall the Great Lakes remain a high-quality drinking water source for many of the 40 million people who live near them. Yet, the pollution problems facing the Great Lakes, from invasive species to nutrient pollution, often have uneven impacts around the region. For instance, nutrient pollution does not impact many areas of the Great Lakes but in areas where it does, such as western Lake Erie, the impacts to drinking water, the local economy, and recreation opportunities are severe. Western Lake Erie is plagued each year by massive harmful algae blooms. These can turn toxic and affect drinking water. For instance, in 2014 the residents of Toledo, Ohio were without safe drinking water flowing from their taps for more than two days due to toxic algae in the city’s water supply. Without urgent action by Ohio, Michigan and Ontario, the problem may continue to worsen.

Nutrient pollution is just one of many issues effecting the health of the Great Lakes. The joint US EPA and Environment Canada study is a helpful resource for more detail on the threats to each lake.

Climate Change Impact on the Great Lakes
There are a variety of projected impacts on the Great Lakes, all of which are interconnected and complex. To name a few: shorter, more intense storm events that increase the amount of runoff into the lakes; less ice coverage and higher average annual water temperatures leading to lower overall lake levels; increased algae blooms due to warmer water temperatures; and habitat more hospitable to southern invasive species.

“At the Alliance for the Great Lakes, we are focused on working with local communities to help them find and develop opportunities to be more resilient to these climate-related challenges,” said Joel Brammeier. “For instance, preserving and restoring natural shorelines like sand dunes and wetlands can absorb and buffer communities against storm surges. And green infrastructure, also referred to as nature-based infrastructure, with less impervious surfaces can slow down and filter runoff from storm events.”

Current Status of Invasive Species Threats for the Great Lakes
There over 180 invasive species in the Great Lakes and because each lake has unique characteristics, the status and impact varies greatly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Environment Canada recently evaluated these impacts on each of the Great Lakes.

“As a whole, all of the Great Lakes are deteriorating based on the impact of aquatic invasive species,” said Joel Brammeier.  “As existing species continue to spread, new species are discovered, and new threats linger at the edges of the basin. Consequently, invasive species present a serious challenge to all five Great Lakes”.

Current Administration Proposed Funding Plans Impact on the Great Lakes
The White House’s proposed budget released on February 12, 2017 recommended significant cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI)—from $300 million annually to $30 million—and included major cuts to EPA and other agencies that protect the Great Lakes. However, it is important to remember that while the Administration proposes a budget, Congress ultimately holds the purse strings. And, the outcry from many Great Lakes legislators of both parties was swift with vows to restore full funding for the program as the budget winds through Congress.

“The GLRI supports efforts to clean up toxic pollution, restore fish and wildlife habitat, combat invasive species like Asian carp, and prevent polluted runoff from farms and cities,” said Joel Brammeier. “And we feel it is equally important to fully fund agencies, such as the EPA, that play a critical role in safeguarding our nation’s water resources. To successfully implement the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, protect public health, and keep our water clean, the EPA must receive funding commensurate with its critical responsibilities.”

Illinois Asian Carp Discovery Update
Last June, a live adult silver carp was found just nine miles from Lake Michigan in the Chicago waterways. The fish was found north of the electric barriers, which is the last line of defense before the lake. The finding triggered a two-week intensive monitoring effort coordinated by the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee (ACRCC), and no additional Asian carp were found. However, agency officials confirmed the fish spent the majority of its life below the electric barriers. Researchers have clearly documented that the electric barriers are not fool proof and that fish can be carried through them when vessels pass through.

“The announcement by the ACRCC that monitoring efforts did not turn up additional Asian carp north of the electric barrier appeared to be met by the State of Illinois and the Trump Administration with a collective yawn,” said Joel Brammeier.  “However, we are not as relieved. The finding of an adult Asian carp north of the electric barrier should be a wake-up call. Despite clear evidence that the electric barrier is not a foolproof solution, agencies have done little to implement best practices to reduce risk. Studies have shown that barges can pull fish through the barrier, increasing risk.”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Brandon Road Study
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers released its “Brandon Road Study” last August, thanks to public pressure from members of Congress and thousands of Great Lakes residents. The recommendations include actions supporting additional measures to block the migration of Asian Carp to Lake Michigan via the Chicago Area Waterway System. The report can be viewed at:

During the comment period environmental and conservation groups, representing hundreds of thousands of residents of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River regions, delivered a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers demanding additional protections against Asian carp. And, the groups delivered more than 10,000 letters from concerned residents around the country to the Corps, urging swift action to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Ontario Step Up, While Illinois Stalls
Unfortunately, the state of Illinois has consistently stalled progress on, and even attempted to block, efforts to build additional Asian carp control measures at the Brandon Road Lock & Dam. In February, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced a new partnership with the states of Ohio and Wisconsin and the province of Ontario to support efforts to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. The states and province have pledged to help cover a portion of the costs of the Brandon Road project. Typically, federal projects require a non-federal funding match and Illinois has indicated an unwillingness to serve as this match.

The partnership shows that some jurisdictions in the region are willing to commit resources to ensure that the Brandon Road study is complete. Additionally, this commitment gives the states and province an important seat at the table to represent the region, and removes one of the final barriers on the Brandon Road Lock & Dam project.

“Conservation organizations and interested individuals will be important in ensuring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moves beyond just study and into actual construction of control measures at the Brandon Road facility,” said Joel Brammeier. “You can sign up for our email list to receive action alerts on this and other Great Lakes issues.