CHICAGO (WLS) -- The Great Lakes, while beautiful, are a fragile freshwater ecosystem that needs to be protected. The mission is to save North America's most valuable resource.
Climate change and extreme weather are becoming more frequent. High lake levels and erosion is causing millions of dollars of damage to the prized shoreline. Pollution is causing toxic algal blooms and an abundance of plastic contamination in the water and along the shore. Invasive species are wreaking havoc on the natural ecosystem.
The cities that surround the Great Lakes wouldn't be what they are today without that breathtaking natural resource, and while many factors are at play there is one common goal: saving, protecting and preserving the glorious bodies of water and our cities that we call home.
"This ecosystem is huge,' said Chris Korleski of the Environmental Protection Agency. "It's just enormous, you know, hundreds of thousands of square miles from New York, from the St. Lawrence Seaway, all the way to Duluth, Minnesota, that's halfway across the country. To manage it you need partnerships, you need people who, who understand their local areas, who understand the larger ecosystem, but who are willing to work together at all levels."
"The Great Lakes are about 20% of the world's fresh surface water and we have it right here in the backyard of the upper Midwest so it's an incredible resource," said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "The main challenge is to make sure it stays clean that it stays available to everybody who lives here. And then we've protected from threats like invasive species and agricultural pollution."
Brammeier said there is a large front backing the protection of our lakes and tackling its biggest threats in hopes of the achieving long term goals.
"Well one of the great things about this region is that it came together about 10 years ago and started to build a program called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and this is a major investment of federal, state and local money into the Great Lakes, that has brought billions of dollars to bear on restoring and protecting this great water over the last decade," he said.
Roughly $300 million a year has been dedicated to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, focusing on highly contaminated areas.
"So that we are essentially decision maker, at the end of the day, but we want to do that with a lot of input," Korleski said. "The other thing we have to do is we have to make sure that our expenditures, have a lot of taxpayer money. We want to make sure that we follow our action plan, because that five year action plan that is our blueprint for what we hope to do."
The top priority is a continuing problem across the Midwest caused by fertilizer runoff from farming. Notre Dame Professor Jennifer Tank explained one solution already in the works to offset the issue: planting over-crops.
"My dream would be to drive around in February. Some year, and see green on the ground, everywhere as long as there isn't if there isn't snow but the types of winters we've been having there hasn't really been that much snow. And what I would want to see is all green sort of blankets protecting the soils of all this farmland around here, to have it be the norm that you would never leave your soils your farm fields, unprotected during this vulnerable time of winter, you'd always plant cover crops you'd always protect them. By having that biomass on the ground, until you're ready to plant the next cash crop so treating the soils and those fields with that kind of care," she said.
Pollution prevention is not only in the hands of farmers and scientists. Every individual person can help keep more than 22 million lbs. of plastic that ends up in the Great Lakes every year out with a few small changes to our everyday lives.
"Imagine any place in your day to day life where you might be able to reduce the amount of waste that you produce or come up with substitutions for your daily activities that might, hopefully be reusable more recyclable more sustainable, you know, none of us are perfect. We can't do this all the time. So, that's important to recognize as well," said Loyola University Assistant Professor Tim Hoellein.
"If there's any if there's anything you can do substitution, you can make. And for the times that you can make it. That is actually contributing to the solution. And, you know, if no one has said thank you or no one has said I appreciate you doing that, you know, you can hear me saying I thank you and I appreciate you doing that. And on behalf of so many other people, all of our neighbors, all of our children and, you know, the people to come in the future," he added.
Beneath the waves, a vast ecosystem is in need of protection, including an ancient coral reef in Chicago, just steps from Lake Shore Drive and 51st Street.
"Tens of thousands of people are driving past it every day. Hardly anyone knows that it's there or even pays attention to it," said Phil Willink, fish biologist. "So I think what the most important thing is that we get people to realize that Morgan Shoal is out there. There are other places like this possibly nearby, that can be highlighted as well. There's a lot more going on beneath Lake Michigan and we need to appreciate that. And this is a good bit because Lake Michigan is our source of drinking water. It's a source of fishing, it's a source of all kinds of recreation beaches, all of these types of things are all interconnected and we have to figure out better solutions for a lot of these problems. If you want to keep utilizing this resource in a responsible manner."
Protecting an underwater oasis and creating a long term plan to restore and sustain our shoreline will cost more than $71 million for design and construction.
"We're actually looking into doing a resiliency study at Great Lakes resiliency, which is a one and a half million dollar study where we're going to actually look at the vulnerabilities of the lakefront and Lake Michigan in general and just come up with well what can we do and just study the situation of the long term.," said Michael Padilla, US Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District.
"The lakefront is actually also a really big economic driver for the city so if you think of all the festivals and events and concerts and the air show and things that bring in tourists to the city of Chicago," said Heather Gleason with the Chicago Park District. "It's jobs it's, you know, making sure that our city is healthy, from an environmental standpoint you know we want to make sure this is our water source. So all those things come into play and just make the lakefront and the shoreline a critical resource for all of us."
This fragile ecosystem interconnects a complex food web. Invasive species are threatening and disrupting the Lake's natural biodiversity. Asian carp have exploded in population downstream in the Illinois River causing irreversible damage. The Army Corps of Engineers is dedicating millions of dollars to a new multi-phase project to keep the carp out of Lake Michigan.
"We're going to use air bubbles to get them out between the barges, we'll be having sounds. As we mentioned they react to motorboat sounds. We're going to use that against them we're going to try and drive them away with sound and then we're also going to use electricity again. So we think that the combination of those technologies will help prevent them from getting into the lock," said Jeffrey Zuercher, US Army Corp of Engineers Chicago District.
"So another thing that we're working on is educating the public about Asian carp. We want to make sure that when people are out, collecting fish, when they're on the Illinois River. They don't put those fish in their boat and then somehow transport them into the Great Lakes, so there's a lot of education has gone on I know the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has put out a lot of information trying to educate fishermen," he added.
Already covering the bottom of Lake Michigan are invasive quagga mussels, filtering out food for native fish. New techniques are being tested to remove these mussels. Zequinox is a pesticide injected under anchored tarps, shows a 95% reduction rate after applications.
"We need to be open to new ideas and new technology, we've discussed Zequinox with the Great Lakes Commission and the people who are working very closely. Now recently, I just read that, it may actually be a different chemical, but they're looking at another potential technology that may be even more effective against the quagga muscles but the short answer to your question is, we have to keep abreast of new technological advances. We have to keep talking to the experts, and we need to be open to those ideas," Korleski said.
Climate change is harder to solve. Combating high lake levels and intense temperature swings will take a team of the brightest minds in the region to compose a plan of action to preserve the lakes and cities.
"We're seeing more rainfall, we're seeing more intense storms. We're seeing just greater erosion and a lot more water running into the lakes. And that's a hard one to fix, because if you, if you try to address an issue here by building a break wall by doing something you can't just be moving the problem down somewhere else. The other thing I would point out is 2013, 2014, which isn't that long ago, people were very worried because the lake level was so low," Korleski explained. "The knowledge is so many people across the lake. To make the best, the best decisions about what you do."
"What can the general public do? And then what can governments in our country and our states do? And I think those are separate questions. For individuals i think, you know, just using less energy and using less water are both important adaptation and mitigation strategies. So, you know, installing efficient heating and cooling equipment insulating our house. Turning the thermostat down, driving. All of these are things that we can do. Flying less actually very important," said Alan Hamlet, associate professor at Notre Dame. "This problem is going to require us as a nation, and as a member of the international community to work together, globally to solve this problem."
But many remain hopeful it can be solved.
"Passionate partnerships and passionate involvement from so many federal agencies from the Great Lakes states from local partners from tribes from organizations from non-governmental organizations. Amazingly enough. They're working well together. And I think they all want to keep working well together. And that's why things are happening," said Korleski.
"I think betting against humanity is a, is not a good bet. I think we are pretty resourceful, and as many people have said you know as if you're sitting on the beach and the water's coming in, you're not just going to sit there and let the water engulf you, you're going to move back right you're going to take action and, and get out of the way. And we will certainly see that too. I mean, people are not just going to take it they're going to adapt. And we are very adaptable, we know how to do that," Hamlet said.
"Great Lakes are a huge source of fresh water, and so the fact that we have so much of it here means, I think, that we have an obligation to be good stewards of that incredible resource," said Tank.
"We actually can make a difference and I think by tackling it one piece at a time by sort of keeping together and making sure everyone's included. You know, I really do. Genuinely I really do believe that these improvements are possible," said Hoellein.