Great Lakes Region

The Great Lakes’ 10,000-plus miles of coastline provide millions of beachgoers with recreational opportunities, support 158 coastal counties, and serve as an economic engine for the region.  Unfortunately, this coastline, including its beaches, watersheds, and nearshore waters, is highly vulnerable to pollution.  Excessive nutrient loading, agricultural and stormwater runoff, industrial pollution, and wildlife waste all degrade water quality.  Bacteria and other pathogens can threaten both human health and the integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem.  For this reason, the GLRI Action Plan II has identified nearshore health and protection of watersheds from polluted runoff as one of five issues requiring urgent attention.

Read on to learn about NOAA’s work in this Focus Area:


Assessment of P Loading Impacts on HAB Formation

Collecting samples of Microcystis, a HAB, for testing. Credit: Juli Dyble Bressie.

Residents and tourists alike are drawn to Great Lakes beaches, nearshore waters, and tributaries.  Unfortunately, these waters and shorelines can experience  growth of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), which are fueled by Phosphorus (P) loadings from the watershed, and which can be detrimental to water quality and human health.  GLRI funds have helped NOAA to monitor phosphorus loading and develop models that forecast the locations of HABs, in turn giving resource managers the tools to make more timely actions to protect human health.  This includes the Experimental Lake Erie HAB Bulletin and the HAB Tracker.

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Runoff Risk Decision Support

Another way NOAA is helping reduce the occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) is through the development of the Runoff Risk Decision Support tool.  Excess nutrients from applied fertilizers can be washed away from fields due to large runoff events, such as heavy rain or snowmelt.  Runoff Risk Decision Support, developed by NOAA’s National Weather Service, warns farmers of forecast conditions that would make it unsuitable to apply fertilizers up to 10 days in advance of high-risk runoff events.  The goal is to reduce nutrient transport from fields to the lakes.

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Land Cover Assessment through the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP)

With GLRI support, updated land cover and historic change information for the Great Lakes has been produced as part of NOAA’s Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP). GLRI specifically supported historic collections (1975, 1985) as well as the upcoming 2015 update. Combining this GLRI work with other NOAA-funded efforts, the result is land cover data that spans 40 years. Additionally, GLRI funding has resulted in land cover change and trend information for 25 years (1985-2010).

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Identifying Land Use and Agricultural Tipping Points

GLRI funds are supporting a five-year collaboration among NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR), and multiple Great Lakes universities to identify “tipping points” of ecosystem health.  Scientific research has identified the stressors that multiple Great Lakes resources, ranging from watersheds to high-priority fish species, can withstand and remain functional.  Beyond these thresholds, or “tipping points,” ecosystem function is severely impaired.  This project provides science-based indicators to strengthen Great Lakes decision making and management.  It provides coastal land use planners and managers with the information and tools they need to develop policies, ordnances, land protection programs, and restoration priorities that preserve the Great Lakes ecosystem for generations to come.

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