The Great Lakes are much better than they used to be in terms of the presence of toxic pollutants like mercury and DDT. Pollutants persist, but in much lower concentrations. New laws and a healthy amount of public awareness have helped restore the lakes.
But challenges still exist; the Great Lakes face an evolving list of environmental threats and problems. Two ongoing projects, both the work of SUNY professors, shed light on a couple of issues pertinent to Lake Ontario.
The first deals with an established problem in the lake. Joe Makarewicz, an environmental science professor at SUNY Brockport, has found that small wastewater treatment plants along the Genesee River may contribute significantly to Lake Ontario's ongoing nutrient pollution problems.
Lake Ontario's nutrient issues will get extra attention this year from US and Canadian officials. They will gather information on the lake, which will be used for environmental and natural resource programs, says John Martin, a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency.
The work on Lake Ontario will include studies of nutrient levels in tributaries as well as a study of the Rochester Embayment, a recessed area stretching from Riga to Webster.
And this past summer, Sam Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at SUNY Fredonia, began an effort to document the extent of plastics pollution in the Great Lakes. She's working with the 5 Gyres Institute, which has studied plastics pollution in the oceans.
Mason traveled several of the Great Lakes, collecting samples. She found that in some places, the concentration of plastic pieces exceeds what 5 Gyres documented in the oceans. And while Mason hasn't tested Lake Ontario, she predicts that it could have among the highest plastics concentrations of the Great Lakes.
Lake Ontario's nutrient levels have long vexed researchers and government regulators. The levels are much lower than a few decades ago, and that's created a visible difference: lake waters are clearer, particularly away from the near-shore areas.
But phosphorous and other forms of nutrient pollution still cause problems in the lake. Ontario Beach Park and Durand-Eastman Park are frequently closed to swimming in the summer, with nutrient pollution as a contributing factor. Other factors include water quality and bacterial counts.
The nutrients essentially fertilize algae blooms. The algae, in turn, cloud the water and provide an environment for bacteria to grow.
Many of the worst, most direct pollution sources are gone. Governments sunk millions of dollars over a period of decades into improving wastewater infrastructure and treatment plants. And the state has implemented laws restricting phosphorous-containing products, ranging from laundry detergents to fertilizers. (In July, a new state law takes effect banning commercial operations from possessing or using dishwasher detergents containing phosphorous.)
More recently, researchers and government officials have focused on indirect sources of nutrient pollution, including fertilizer runoff from farm fields and lawns: viewed as a major culprit.
But SUNY Brockport's Makarewicz, who's studying the Genesee River under a grant from the US Department of Agriculture, has found that there are still some direct sources of nutrient pollution.
"People are asking, at least on the scientific side, 'Well why is the embayment having such a problem? Why isn't it recovering like the rest of the lake is?'" Makarewicz says.
The Genesee River and its watershed start in northern Pennsylvania's Allegheny Plateau and cut through the western part of New York before emptying into Lake Ontario. Approximately 25 small wastewater treatment plants are located in the watershed, Makarewicz says.
Each of the plants treats fewer than 1 million gallons of water per day. And because of that, their water discharges are held to a lower standard than the effluent from larger municipal plants, such as Van Lare.
"What those rules don't consider is that when you add up 25 of them, they're well over 1 million gallons per day," Makarewicz says.
The plants aren't breaking any rules, he says. The problem is that the regulations don't consider the cumulative impact of the smaller plants.
And the plants can contribute a significant amount of nutrient pollution. For example, Black Creek carries about 16,000 kilograms of phosphorus to the Genesee River each year and some of that makes it into the lake. Approximately 18 percent of the 16,000 kilograms comes from wastewater treatment plants, Makarewicz says.
To improve the Genesee River's water quality, it may make sense to try to reduce the nutrient contributions from the wastewater treatment plants, Makarewicz says. A cleaner Genesee River means cleaner water flowing into Lake Ontario.
That may mean taking a look at the permitting process for the smaller plants and, in particular, reviewing their cumulative discharges.
The world's oceans have several garbage patches: massive areas of swirling ocean currents where plastic pieces accumulate.
The Great Lakes have a similar problem, but no one examined the issue until SUNY Fredonia's Mason came along. She saw an opportunity to incorporate the work into a class she teaches. She reached out to the 5 Gyres Institute, which has extensively studied plastics pollution in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, about borrowing equipment to collect samples. Coincidentally, the institute had been interested in studying the Great Lakes, says Marcus Ericksen, its director.
This past summer, Mason and her students set out on the US Brig Niagara, travelling on three lakes: Superior, Huron, and Erie. They collected seven or eight samples from each lake. Each sample represented a segment of water equal in surface area to roughly two football fields.
While Mason found some larger pieces of plastic — cigarette pack wrappers and broken bottle caps, for example — she mostly found pieces between one-third of a millimeter and 1 millimeter in diameter. Those fragments are called microplastics.
Mason and her team haven't taken samples from Lake Ontario, though Mason says she hopes to do so this summer. Ontario will likely be a bigger focus in 2014, she says.
But she hypothesizes that Lake Ontario could have some of the highest concentrations of plastic pieces in the Great Lakes. The lakes form a system and they flow into each other. Since Ontario is at the end of the chain, the water from the other lakes flows into it.
Mason and her collaborators at the 5 Gyres Institute are troubled by the amount of plastics in the samples, particularly samples from Lake Erie. One of the samples represented a concentration of plastic pieces that was double the highest sample taken from an ocean garbage patch.
The researchers say the effects of plastic pollution are uncertain and that more research is needed.
"This is like any environmental issue: it's going to take time for enough data to get in to really get an idea how prominent or how important this issue is for the Great Lakes," Mason says.
Mason and Ericksen have identified issues for further examination. For example, they suspect that some marine wildlife might eat the plastic fragments because the fragments resemble fish eggs in shape and size. But they have to confirm that.
When ingested, the pieces can cut the animals' throat or stomach and can also cause ulcers, Ericksen says.
But they also have questions about the relationship between plastic fragments and existing pollutants. Chemicals like DDT and PCB's can adhere to the plastics, so the question is whether they're adhering to the samples from the Great Lakes. Another researcher is testing the samples to determine that, Mason says.
Ericksen says there's evidence that PCB's will transfer from plastics ingested by seabirds into the birds' organs.
The researchers say they want to better understand how the plastics are getting into the water and how they're moving in the Great Lakes system.
They suspect that the bigger pieces are washing into the water from land. But the microplastics may be entering via a different route.
Mason and 5 Gyres staff are exploring the possibility that many of the microplastic fragments are actually microbeads from common beauty products. Think in terms of the exfoliating microbeads in a face wash.
The plastic pieces may be too small for wastewater treatment plants to filter out, so they remain in the plants' treated discharge. This summer, Mason plans to have SUNY students across the state look at wastewater treatment plant discharge to see if they can find microbeads.
Ultimately, data from the studies can be used to determine effective approaches to address plastics pollution in the Great Lakes. For example, the studies may convince beauty product companies to stop using plastic microbeads, Ericksen says.
Personal responsibility will also be a key issue. Decreasing the amount of plastics in the Great Lakes may come down, in part, to educating consumers about recycling, avoiding certain product ingredients, and steering clear of single-use plastic products.
"We are making these choices when we go to the grocery store, as we live our lives on a day-to-day basis to contribute to this plastic problem," Mason says.