Organizations Fighting to Protect the Great Lakes

Great Lakes Scene 1971

Scene from Great Lakes Basin Commission Report (1971)

The Great Lakes Commission

The Great Lakes Commission (GLC) is an interstate compact between representatives of the eight states that touch the Great Lakes. It was established and enacted by State governors in 1955 and authorized by Congress in 1968 to manage resources and economic development issues for the States. Their three essential services consist of sharing information among the States, coordination on issues of regional concern, and advocacy of those positions. The goal of the GLC is "to promote the orderly, integrated and comprehensive development, use and consevation of the water resources of the Great Lakes Basin."

Great Lakes Commission Bulletin (1985)

Great Lakes Commission Bulletin (1985) 

One unique aspect of the GLC is the Great Lakes Commission Bulletin, which is their quarterly magazine. It reports in-depth analyses about Michigan’s water use issues to inform citizens and inspire them to become more involved in their communities. 

In issue #9 on July 25, 1985, the GLC summarized legislative developments affecting the Great Lakes Basin region. It first discussed the house bill passed to renew and expand the Clean Water Act, which provided $21 billion in funding for a nine-year program of wastewater treatment construction grants. The House and Senate agreed that reducing the $21 billion amount would impact the state’s ability to fight pollution and would negatively impact the water supply of this country.  The bill also outlined new authority to control nonpoint sources of pollution; a joint Federal-state program to clean waters that remain contaminated with toxic substances; limitations on the ability of polluters to obtain waivers and a ban on the discharge into estuaries of sewage that has not received secondary treatment.

Issue #11 on August 23, 1985 discussed the EPA Hazardous Waste Insurance Proposal. The EPA proposed to ease or possibly eliminate insurance requirements for operators of hazardous waste facilities.  The proposal applies only to the eleven states that have chosen direct Federal regulation of hazardous waste disposal. The bulletin also analyzed the U.S.-Canadian Upper Great Lakes Connecting Channels Study, which consisted of several state and federal agencies investing the pollution of the Upper Great Lakes Connecting Channels over an 18-month period. The study attempted to determine the extent of toxic chemical contamination in three channels: The Detroit River, the St. Clair River, and the St. Mary’s River.

The Bulletin on December 2, 1985, Issue #15, informed the public on the Omnibus Water Project Legislation. The House, by 358-60 passed omnibus water project legislation.  It prohibited water diversion from any portion of the Great Lakes or their tributaries for use outside a Great Lake state unless that diversion was approved by the Governor of each of the Great Lakes states.  It auhorized the EPA to study the quantity of Great Lakes water consumed, and put $2.13 million towards determining the extent of shoreline damage in the U.S. related to the regulation of the waters of Lake Superior. It also authorized rehabilitation of the Eisenhower and Snell locks (enable ships to transit), as well as a new large lock at Sault Ste. Marie, MI. 

International Joint Commission (IJC) 

Clean Water 8 Fish Clean Water 2 Ducks Clean Water 9 Birds

Some of the Wildlife Affected by

Lake Erie's Algal Blooms 

Phosphorus levels in Lake Erie rose throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which led to the production of algal blooms that severely increased the speed with which the Lake deteriorated. Harmful algal blooms occur when algae rapidly accumulate and grow out of control; the algae can produce toxic or harmful effects on people and aquatic ecosystems, including fish, lake-side mammals and birds. Our government passed regulations to reduce the phosphorus inputs, and therefore reduced algal blooms, leading to Lake Erie’s recovery in the mid-1980s. However, the health of Lake Erie again became severely threatened in the early 2000s after having long experienced changes as a result of human activities and natural forces. According to the International Joint Commission (IJC), Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes, making it the warmest and most susceptible to eutrophication and the effects of climate change.

These factors led to the accelerated decline of the Lake, which could be seen in the Lake’s compromised water quality, massive algal blooms, hypoxia (low oxygen levels), and substantial fish kills. The poor condition of Lake Erie binational attention to the need for urgent actions to reduce external inputs of phosphorus, as the rising prevalence of reactive phosphorus is recognized as the primary cause of the decline. The IJC claims that “the primary sources of phosphorus loadings to Lake Erie in the decades leading up to the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement were municipal sewage plants. Today, however, external phosphorus loads occur largely as runoff from diffuse land uses such as fertilized farm fields, lawns and impervious surfaces including streets and parking lots.” The return of severe algal blooms and evidence of pollution again galvanized public concern and a governmental response in the 2000s.

In 2011, Lake Erie experienced its largest algal bloom in history. Heavy rains in the spring carried large amounts of phosphorus into Lake Erie, and in combination with warm temperatures, a perfect environment was created to cultivate a mass of algae three times larger than the largest bloom ever previously recorded. This resulted in significant adverse impacts to its fisheries, recreation and tourism, property values and drinking water supplies. In response to this difficulty, IJC established the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority in 2012. 

The goal of the Lake Erie Ecosystem Priority (LEEP) was to help federal, state and local governments create policies and practices to help restore Lake Erie’s ecosystem by lowering phosphorus levels and resulting harmful algae blooms. Through the LEEP, the IJC determined that climate change, aquatic invasive species, and both rural and urban agricultural pollutant sources all contributed to the harmful phosphorus levels in Lake Erie. To do this, the IJC established study teams of experts who worked to develop better scientific understandings the phosphorus in Lake Erie – both the causes of it and the potential controls. Engaging the public was also an important component of the LEEP, inciting more than 400 individuals and organizations to host public meetings in communities across the Lake Erie Basin. A draft of the LEEP report was also made available to the public for review and comment, which was analyzed by “lakeside residents, anglers, boaters, farmers and other concerned residents and organizations” to strengthen and reinforce the recommendations in the report. 

Algal bloom

An Aerial Photo of an Algal Bloom on Lake Erie from the International Joint Commission's LEEP. 

The Great Lakes Regional Center

The National Wildlife Federation has fought on the front lines of wildlife conservation since 1936, serving as our country's oldest and largest conservation organization. The NWF aims to protect America's beautiful, cherished landscapes and wildlife for hunters, hikers, birders, boaters, climbers, campers, cyclists, gardeners, farmers and other outdoor enthusiasts. In their mission, the NWF claims that "This conservation ethic represents a sacred duty and obligation to protect and build upon our conservation heritage for the sake of wildlife, ourselves, our neighbors, and—most of all—for future generations." 

Great Lakes Regional Center Logo

NWF Great Lakes Regional Center 

Within the National Wildlife Federation is many regional centers and affiliates; one of them is the Great Lakes Regional Center. Located in Ann Arbor, MI, their mission mirrors that of the greater NWF: to inspire Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future. The NWF Great Lakes Regional Center is composed of scientists, lawyers and policy experts. The Center has won many  precedent-setting victories for the Great Lakes restoration, including stopping invasive species, protecting Lake Superior from sulfide mining, safeguarding the lakes from the effects of climate change, and defending the Great Lakes from oil pipeline spills. The Center also promotes and maintains the Great Lakes Compact, and improves the environments where people live by connecting the public with the surrounding nature and environment.

"The NWF Great Lakes Regional Center is the leader in protecting and restoring the Great Lakes for the people and wildlife depending on the world's greatest freshwater resource." 

Mike Shriberg, Ph.D.

Mike Shriberg, the Great Lake Regional Center (GLRC) Regional Executive Director, first came to the regional office after serving as the Policy Director at the Ecology Center, as the Education Director at the Graham Institute, and as a Lecturer at the University of Michigan's Program in the Environment and Earth & Environmental Sciences

The GLRC's mission aligns with Mike's focus on Great Lakes protection, energy policy and sustainability, as the Center works in the same areas under the National Wildlife Federation and other organizations in each of the Great Lakes states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, some of the GLRC's major projects include Great Lakes restoration, prevention of the introduction of aquatic invasive species, protection of the Great Lakes from climate change, and outdoor education for children. When asked about the history of the Center, Mike gave some interesting insight into its inception.

"It started with the University of Michigan and with the Environmental Law class, which we still run. There’s been a 30 year partnership between the University and the National Wildlife Federation. It started back with a mission and with an approach that was directly tied to “activism” because it was really about holding polluters accountable for [destroying] the Great Lakes. So the office was really instrumental. For example, in the 80s, in getting a polluter-pays law passed in Michigan, [the Great Lakes Regional Center] was involved in many lawsuits that basically said 'hey, companies, you’re dumping whatever it is: toxic chemicals or industrial waste or sewage into the Great Lakes, and you’re not following the law.' They worked a lot on issues – like suing the EPA, recently, for not actually protecting the Great Lakes against invasive species like they’re supposed to by law. We started with working with U of M students in working on the legal angle, and then it has expanded to a focus more holistically of the Great Lakes themselves, so not just a portion of the laws through legal challenges, but getting the laws drafted and getting policies in place for protecting the Great Lakes." 

As one of the original Steering Committee members of Healing Our Waters, the Great Lake's coalition that advocates for the Great Lake Basin's water quality standards, Mike continued to explain the GLRC's role in maintaining the coalition. 

"We're most well known right now as being the organization that runs Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition, which is a group of problem-solving environmental NGOs in the region who unite to get federal funding to clean up the Great Lakes. So in addition to working on holding polluters accountable, we’re now working on a massive scale restoration, with $2.4 billion allocated so far. So our organization goes to Congress essentially and asks for this money for the Great Lakes – $300 million a year, and we’re now in our 8th year."  

Some of the GLRC's work focuses on supporting specific laws, such as the Clean Water Act. Mike and his organization testify in hearings and publish articles that provide evidence and encouragement to fortify environmental legislations. He commented on the Clean Water Act and other similar reforms, and the degree to which the Act actually succeeded in cleaning up the surrounding Great Lakes area. 

"So the Clean Water Act is really pretty simple in the Great Lakes. It was extraordinarily effective at cleaning up the point-source pollutions - the pollutant sources that you can put a meter on, like industrial pollution and much of the pollution that comes from sewage. The Great Lakes were choked with that prior to 1970. That hasn’t gone away, but it’s gotten a lot better. The problem [with the Clean Water Act] is that it did not address the non-point pollutants - the dispersed ones. What we’re finding right now in Lake Erie is a great example of this. Lake Erie was declared “dead” in 1969, it had a massive comeback throughout the 70s and 80s, and was looking really good in the 90s up until about 5 or 6 years ago. Now we have pollution that stretches hundreds of miles up Lake Erie and it’s because of the non-point source pollution, largely agriculture pollution, which is really not covered under the Clean Water Act. So you’re finding [the Clean Water Act] did a very good job up until some of the factories and other sources who essentially clean it up, basically doesn't do anything at all for the non-point sources, and that’s what plaguing the Great Lakes right now. So the Great Lakes are in better shape than they were before the Clean Water Act, but they’re also left without an adequate framework to address the sources of pollution that exist. We’re seeing that do great harm to the ecosystem right now." 

Shriberg and the GLRC have continued to play a leading role in the fight for protection of the Great Lakes in recent years, including mobilizing bipartisan support against right-wing efforts to defund longstanding federal initiatives.  In a 2017 interview, Schriberg addressed the similarities between the Reagan and Trump administrations in their opposition to federal environmental protection programs and explained why the Great Lakes remain an issue of pressing national and international concern. 

"In much more recent history, Trump came in, and his Budget Director Mick Mulvaney came out with the first budget in February-March of this year, which took the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and put a big fat zero in front of it. He said that they don’t think that the federal government should be involved in this effort - that this is a state and local effort. Our congress people pushed back really hard and immediately, and said: "Look. This is 20% of the world’s surface fresh water. It’s a binational resource. It’s shared by 40 million people who get their drinking water in the Great Lakes, and we have 10 states, 2 provinces – if that’s not a national issue, then I don't know what is. And this was not partisan – Democrats and Republicans were equally as tense by this and fought for it. In fact, Republicans were really the tip of the sphere because they had much more leverage... We [now] get $300 million allocated towards [the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative] and we won this budget battle. So I think we're in a period of time that is probably the most similar to Reagan and the 1980s than we’ve seen certainly in my lifetime."


The Great Lakes Commission: A Briefing Paper, Great Lakes Commission, Box 7, Ecology Center of Ann Arbor records 1969-2010, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 

Great Lakes Commission Bulletin, Great Lakes Commission, Box 7, Ecology Center of Ann Arbor records 1969-2010, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 

"Mission and Strategic Plan | National Wildlife Federation." The National Wildlife Federation. Accessed December 19, 2017.

"Great Lakes Regional Center | National Wildlife Federation." The National Wildlife Federation. Accessed December 19, 2017.

Great Lakes Basin Compact, Great Lakes Commission, Box 7, Ecology Center of Ann Arbor records 1969-2010, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. 

"Mike Shriberg | National Wildlife Federation." The National Wildlife Federation. Accessed December 28, 2017.