The Largest Source of Drinking Water in the U.S. is Threatened by Toxic Pollution and Algae Blooms

The Great Lakes supply drinking water to 40 million Americans, yet many are currently suffering from old, crumbling water infrastructure.

Only about 1% of the water in the Great Lakes actually leaves the basin each year, through the St. Lawrence River, according to Safewater. This means the pollutants that are dumped into the Great Lakes remain there, and become concentrated over time. And there are a substantial number of pollutants that threaten the lakes. Lead pipes, harmful algal blooms or PFAS toxins in the water can lead to serious health issues can arise in communities living nearby, River Network reports.

The Great Lakes contain about 90% of all freshwater in North America.
Source: Adobe Stock/mivod
The Great Lakes contain about 90% of all freshwater in North America.

“There are approximately 35 million people in the Great Lakes area, and that results in a lot of domestic waste, with a relatively small area to dispose of it in. In fact, a 2006 study revealed that 20 evaluated cities (representing one-third of the region’s population) produced more than three trillion liters of waste in one year,” Safewater states on its The Great Lakes Fact Sheet. “That is equal to 1.2 million Olympic swimming pools of waste. More than 90 billion liters of the waste that is dumped into the Great Lakes each year is untreated sewage. That is the equivalent of dumping more than 100 Olympic swimming pools of raw sewage into the Great Lakes each day!

Today, an estimated 88% of Great Lakes residents support and are willing to pay for Great Lakes restoration. A 2018 poll conducted by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a bi-national organization that advises the two governments on trans-border water issues, found that more than half of the people who responded feel that regulation of the Great Lakes is lacking and said they would be willing to to pay for increased regulation through higher prices for consumer products.

Pollution can become highly concentrated in the
Source: Adobe Stock/wildnerdpix
Pollution can become highly concentrated in the “closed system” of the Great Lakes.

Meanwhile, municipalities face affordability concerns from the rising cost of water and the need to invest in aging infrastructure.

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, representing hundreds of Great Lakes environmental groups, has written a letter to Congress demanding prioritization of the health and safety of the Great Lakes and the drinking water it provides to over 40 million Americans as part of federal government investments to recover from the devastating Coronavirus pandemic.

“These are common-sense priorities for ensuring that everyone who calls the Great Lakes home has access to the basic need of clean drinking water,” said Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition director Laura Rubin. “As Congress considers stimulus measures to help America’s economy recover, it must recognize that investments in the Great Lakes and drinking water infrastructure will yield long-term environmental and public health benefits. We proudly join the groups who are signatories of this letter in urging Congress to support these clean water and Great Lakes priorities without delay.”

The Enbridge Line 5 oil line passes through the Straits of Mackinac.
Source: Adobe Stock/ricardoreitmeyer
The Enbridge Line 5 oil line passes through the Straits of Mackinac.

The letter was endorsed by the Great Lakes Commission, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, American Great Lakes Ports Association, Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition,  Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Legislative Caucus and BlueGreen Alliance.

The Coalition sent Congress a letter in April 2020 calling for stimulus funds to be used in repairing aging water infrastructure and support Great Lakes restoration activities that protect source water, as well as prevent water shut-offs.

The Great Lakes are also popular for recreational opportunities.
Source: Adobe Stock/Aitor
The Great Lakes are also popular for recreational opportunities.

“Even with the results being achieved, we still have more work to do to ensure the benefits of the GLRI and other restoration programs are shared by everyone in the region,” the letter states. “Federal agencies and regional partners can put more people to work if additional resources are made available. Right now, there are 21 ongoing or planned projects to clean up toxic pollution in Areas of Concern that need $364 million in federal funding. Non-federal partners are being recruited now to contribute approximately $242 million over the next 3 fiscal years to these projects. Other priorities such as invasive species prevention, nonpoint source pollution mitigation, and habitat restoration have significant capacity to expand across the region. The broader economic downturn could create new challenges for local partners in meeting cost-share requirements.

“We urge Congress to allow agencies to waive cost-share requirements where appropriate for economic hardship,” the letter continues. “We also ask Congress to give agencies appropriate time and staff to obligate these resources on much-needed projects.”

In the shorter term, investments in the Great Lakes infrastructure would modernize outdated water systems to protect drinking water and public health; help communities respond to high lake levels and climate impacts; strengthen the Great Lakes navigation system; and accelerate funding for cleanup projects that will spur economic development, while sustaining efforts to block the introduction of Asian carp and implement agricultural conservation practices to prevent harmful algal blooms, the Great Lakes Commission des Grands Lacs reports.

Lighthouses dot the coast of these large inland freshwater lakes.
Source: Adobe Stock/csterken
Lighthouses dot the coast of these large inland freshwater lakes.

According to Clean Water Action, the federal government used to cover about 63% of the costs for clean water infrastructure. That share has now dropped to 9%, with the resulting burden hitting hardest on low-income and minority communities.

A growing number of individuals are calling for increased funding for the restoration of the Grat Lakes infrastructure and a healthier future for those who depend on these freshwater lakes for drinking water.

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