cover image of Great Lakes Brief for the Incoming Michigan Governor

Great Lakes Brief for the Incoming Michigan Governor


October 12, 2018 - Stephanie Otts, Catherine Janasie, and Terra Bowling, National Sea Grant Law Center, University of Mississippi School of Law

The Great Lakes are an incredibly valuable natural resource. The five lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario – cover more than 94,000 square miles with a total coastline of nearly 11,000 miles along eight states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York) and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. The Great Lakes hold approximately 90% of North America’s fresh surface water, and are an important source of drinking water for many Great Lakes communities. It’s also the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world with rich biodiversity, including more than 170 species of fish (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, 2018b). The Great Lakes are also an important economic driver
for the United States. Over 200 million metric tons of cargo is transported by Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River ships every year, providing an estimated 329,000 jobs and $60 billion of economic activity (Chamber of Marine Commerce, 2018). Millions of tourists visit the Great Lakes every year to fish, hunt, and enjoy the beaches, parks, and other recreational areas.

All this human activity, however, has placed the Great Lakes ecosystems under serious strain. Industrial activity, agriculture, and coastal development alter aquatic habitats and degrade water quality. Climatic changes such as warmer air temperatures are lowering lakes levels, which can negatively impact commercial navigation, recreational boating, and hydropower generation, as well as fish and wildlife habitat. Water withdrawals that move water out of the Great Lakes Basin pose an additional threat. Invasive species such as the sea lamprey, zebra mussels, and Eurasian milfoil have fundamentally changed ecosystems within the Great Lakes to the detriment of many native species.

Fortunately, the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes environments is of high priority for the United States and Canadian national governments. Extensive funding is directed towards restoration initiatives and there are a number of binational collaborations that guide policymaking in the Great
Lakes. In addition, the state, provincial, and local jurisdictions within the Great Lakes Basin also play an active role in the management and protection of Great Lakes resources.

Given the diversity of stakeholders in the Great Lakes region, it should come as no surprise that disagreements abound over how to best address environmental challenges. The purpose of this brief is to provide a concise summary of some of the key policy debates surrounding the management and use of Great Lakes water resources. The brief covers potential impacts and risks on the Great Lakes from invasive species, the transport of crude
oil, and water diversions, all of which have recently emerged as policy issues for all Great Lakes jurisdictions, including the state of Michigan.


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