We love to talk about weather in the Midwest. At work or the grocery store, small talk almost always begins with, “How much snow did you get?” or “What did you think of the wind howling last night?” or, my favorite, “Cold enough for you?”
This banter, however, has taken on a more serious tone in recent years.
The people on the south shore of Lake Superior, stretching from Duluth, Minn., eastward to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, have seen firsthand three storm events move through the region in the last seven years. Given the frequency and intensity of these events, experts believe them to be climate-change-driven.
In 2012, city streets in Duluth, Minn., were destroyed, and the local zoo was two-thirds underwater, causing animal drownings and escape from exhibits by a couple of seals and a polar bear.
In 2016, US Highway 2 east of Ashland and surrounding roads became impassible for days, isolating residents of the Bad River Reservation and cutting off their access to food, water and medical supplies.
In 2018, many of the roads and streets in Houghton, Mich., washed out and collapsed into sinkholes.
With these three events, over $150 million in damage occurred across the region, multiple tragic deaths, and lasting effects on the health of Lake Superior’s waters.
My colleagues at the Northland College Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation have been taking note of these storms since they began to occur. Center researchers are working to understand the short- and long-term impacts to the south shore’s water quality from more frequent and intense climate-driven storm events. These include an increase in sediment plumes flowing into Lake Superior, the effects on coastal habitats, and most surprising of all—a growing threat from blue-green algal blooms, more typically associated with warmer, shallower lakes like Lake Erie.
Part of my role at the Burke Center is to convene experts to discuss challenges protecting water resources now and into the future. We coordinated our September 2019 gathering with the International Joint Commissions’ Great Lakes listening tour. Local experts shared their concerns with the IJC about the state of the south shore of Lake Superior, and how these concerns relate to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the IJC’s key water quality instrument for protecting and improving the Great Lakes.
The Burke Center has released a white paper that describes some of the key issues highlighted and discussed with the IJC. In addition to climate-change-driven storms, sediment plumes, and unpreceded blue-green algal blooms, other issues include:
- Contaminated storm-related sewer overflows
- Concerns about agricultural runoff
- Erosion exposing the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline that passes through the Bad River Indian Reservation
- Proposed mining activity in the headwaters of Lake Superior tributaries
- Inadequate long-term planning and a fragmented approach to water quality management
The white paper concludes with some key considerations for the future of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
Some things will never change, such as a Midwesterner’s passion for talking about the weather. But it’s my hope that the Burke Center’s research, convening of experts to discuss water challenges, and shared information will make a difference, as we enter what seems to be a new era of climate-driven storms and water quality concerns. Not only for the protection and improvement of water quality on the south shore of Lake Superior, but across all the Great Lakes and binational communities.
To access the white paper, and more information such as video and audio recordings from the IJC’s visit to Northland College, please visit northland.edu/watersummit.
Valerie Damstra is the operations manager for the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.