Every year, over 24 billion gallons of sewage and wastewater discharge are dumped into the Great Lakes, according to the "Great Lakes Sewage Report Card" published last week by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, a Canadian environmental litigation group.
"The Great Lakes basin is one of the most important freshwater ecosystems on the planet—holding one-fifth of the world's fresh water," said Dr. Elaine MacDonald, the author of the Report Card in a press release. "Yet, the 20 cities we evaluated are dumping the equivalent of more than 100 Olympic swimming pools full of raw sewage directly into the Great Lakes every single day."
Most cities in the eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces that surround the lakes have antiquated sewer systems that combine storm water runoff with domestic sewage. During rainy weather, sewage treatment facilities often do not have the capacity to treat all of this water, so the excess is funneled into overflow pipes that feed directly into the lakes, releasing human waste and disease-causing bacteria into the environment. Many industrial facilities in those cities also discharge pollutants into the sewer systems.
"When there's a sewage overflow, it also contains industrial chemicals... that end up on our beaches and in our drinking water sources," says Cyndi Roper, Great Lakes Policy Director for Clean Water Action. "It's a human health issue, it's an aesthetic issue, and it's an issue for wildlife."
Although the Great Lakes are massive compared to the amount of pollution spilled into them, pollution has already damaged bird and animal life, decreased biodiversity, and made fish in some areas unsafe to eat. At least two lakeside counties in Michigan are forced to close their recreational beaches more than 50 days a year because of water pollution.
Half of the 35 million Americans and Canadians who live along the Great Lakes draw their drinking water from it, though the water is treated before it is put back into the pipes.
Regular toxic discharges in some cities continue despite multibillion dollar investments in sewer upgrades over the past three decades that have abated some of the worst pollution.
Cleaning up Pollution Costs More Than Prevention
James Clift, Policy Director for the Michigan Environmental Council, says that the cost of cleaning up pollution is far greater than the cost of prevention.
"Toxics are extremely difficult to get out of the lakes once they're there," says Clift, "and they build up in the sediment," especially in the harbors of highly populated areas.
In May 2007, the State of Wisconsin plans to begin a $390 million dollar project to clean up toxic sediment from the Fox River, which flows into Lake Michigan.
People are becoming increasingly conscious of the need for cleanup, Clift says. "There are a number of ways which these chemicals will get back to you... Once it's in the environment, it's going to get into our bodies one way or another."
Sierra Legal Defence Fund's "Great Lakes Sewage Report Card" claims to be the first-ever ecosystem-based survey and "report card" of sewage discharge into the Great Lakes basin.
Detroit received the lowest grade: D. From July 2000 to June 2001, a typical year, according to the study, Detroit's sewage system spilled 39 million gallons of raw, untreated sewage from 41 discharge points that eventually flowed into Lake Erie. And that is only a tiny fraction of Detroit's total discharge of untreated storm drain water that often contains dangerous chemicals and other pollutants. The city has long-term plans to upgrade its sewer system.
The city that ranks highest is Green Bay, Wisconsin. Green Bay, which borders Lake Michigan and serves 176,000 people with its sewer system, is the only one of 20 cities evaluated that does not have spillage of any kind into the Great Lakes.
Ranked second is Peel Region, Ontario, with a sewer district that serves over one million people. Unlike many lower-ranked cities, it never spills raw sewage, although it does occasionally discharge treated water into Lake Ontario.
Sierra Legal Defence Fund's report not only catalogs pollution discharge but also looks at some of the complex political issues surrounding pollution, and makes several policy and infrastructure recommendations.