Rights of Nature for the Great Lakes

 Sunrise on Lake Michigan

Sunrise on Lake Michigan

By Melannie Levine

The Great Lakes are the largest surface freshwater system on Earth. Few people realize that the Great Lakes hold 84 percent of North America's surface freshwater.[1] Only the polar ice caps contain more.[2] From west to east, spanning over 750 miles (1,200 kilometers), the lakes are: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario.[3] Each comprise their own unique ecosystems and together form a larger, integrated whole.

The Great Lakes Basin is rich in biodiversity as well, with over 3,500 species of plants and animals. This includes an array of rare, threatened, and endangered animals, including aquatic species such as lake sturgeon.

Despite the Great Lakes being an area of vast biodiversity and rich habitat, its natural ecosystems are being diminished. Threats include pollution, over 180 non-native and invasive species, human alteration of water flows, and more.

To address these and other threats, Earth Law Center (ELC) seeks U.S. and Canadian recognition of the Great Lakes as a legal entity possessing rights. Legal status would ensure permanent and rights-based protections for the Great Lakes, creating legal structures that require that these ecosystems be restored to health. By contrast, our current legal structure treats the Great Lakes and its nonhuman inhabitants as property, incentivizing its destruction.

The Great Lakes touch eight states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York) and the Canadian province of Ontario. When taking the watershed into consideration, over 30 million people rely upon the water from the five lakes, equating to “10 percent of the U.S. population and more than 30 percent of the Canadian population.”

Climate Change Hurts the Great Lakes

Climate change is having significant negative impacts on the Great Lakes and worsening the impact of other longstanding environmental harms. The situation highlights the need to establish a new legal and cultural relationship with this watershed.

One climate change-driven harm comes from rainfall patterns. Higher-than-average rainfall accumulation in the region over the previous summer season[4] is part of a growing trend. The Great Lakes have seen a 10.8 percent annual increase in precipitation from 1900 until 2012, with a 37 percent increase of heavy storm precipitation over the last half century.[5] While replenishing water levels, the high rainfall also causes flash floods, destroys shorelines, boosts toxic algal bloom, increases sewage overflows, and washes chemicals and agricultural waste residing on topsoil into lake water.[6] This adversely affects ecosystems at both the lakes’ edge and water basin.

The average temperatures along the lakes also have increased. From 1900, the annual average temperature in the Great Lakes region has gone up by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and this is projected to increase to 11.2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. This increase brings about several concerns, including the 71 percent reduction of annual average ice coverage between 1973 and 2010, more algae growth, additional dead zones lacking oxygen, and wildlife species continuing to go extinct.[7] In fact, out of approximately 250 fish species residing in the Great Lakes[8], more than 13 wildlife species have gone extinct since the Europeans first started settling the region.[9]

While temperatures increase, so too does usage of electricity, creating a destructive feedback loop for climate change. Daily water extraction from the lakes to generate electricity went from about half of all water extraction, or 240 million cubic meters, to 95 percent of all daily water extraction, or over 3 billion cubic meters, between 1985 and 2002. “Power plants in the Great Lakes basin [in 2002] withdrew more water for hydroelectricity generation in an hour than was withdrawn in a day in 1985.”[10] This heavy reliance upon electricity only furthers warming air and water temperatures, making the issue worse.[11]

Great Lakes Health Declines Despite 2012 Bilateral Agreement

A recent commission found that the U.S. and Canada have a long way to go toward ridding the Great Lakes of pollution. Inadequately-treated sewage, industrial chemicals and farm runoff still flow into the five lakes, the International Joint Commission said in its first checkup report since both nations last updated the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 2012.

"While significant progress has been made to restore and protect the lakes, the governments of Canada and the United States and Great Lakes civil society as a whole are living with the costly consequences of past failures to anticipate and prevent environmental problems," the report says. "By now, it should be clear that prevention makes environmental, economic and common sense.”[12]

As more people depend on the Great Lakes, the less likely it is that the lakes will replenish.  Human uses of the Great Lakes are many, including  “drinking, cleaning, flushing, crop irrigation, creating electricity, refining, bleaching, distilling, and cooling.”[13]

University of Michigan researchers published a report detailing the greatest stressors found on and around the Great Lakes in the Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping (GLEAM) project in 2013. These stressors are caused by manmade interventions or activities for either recreational or commercial purposes, also known as ecosystem services. As seen in Figure 1, a map of stressed locations, the harms to these lakes are pervasive and severe.[14]

Figure 1

Pollution Worsens in the Great Lakes

Lake Erie suffers from toxic algae, fed by phosphorus from fertilized farms, cattle feedlots and leaky septic systems. The algae’s toxin, called microcystin, causes diarrhea, vomiting and liver-function problems, and readily kills dogs and other small animals that drink contaminated water. A small bloom of toxic algae even formed directly over Toledo’s water-intake pipe in Lake Erie, miles offshore. Beyond the dangers to people and animals, the algae cause tens of billions of dollars of damage to commercial fishing and to the recreational and vacation trades.[15]

The Great Lakes don’t just have algae to contend with. Legacy contamination plagues the Great Lakes since it can take the lakes decades to rid themselves of toxins.[16] Most of the commonly found pollutants result from improper disposal over decades.[17] The contamination also increases with shoreline construction, erosion and digging (to accommodate larger vessels).

Mercury levels in some species of Great Lakes fish are stable but are increasing in others. Chemicals like the fire retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) have been found  in the water, air and sediment and also in the wildlife and people who live near the Great Lakes. Exposure to PBDEs has been linked to thyroid disorders, birth defects, infertility, cancer, and neurobehavioral disorders.[18]

Canada’s government promised to spend nearly CAN$9 million to upgrade, renovate and improve the water plant in Neskantaga First Nation, a northern Ontario community that has been without safe tap water since 1995. "For more than 20 years we haven't been able to drink water from our taps or bathe without getting rashes," says Neskantaga Chief Wayne Moonias. Nearly 40 other First Nations in northern Ontario are also without safe drinking water.[19]

These threats to communities underscore the inescapable reality that degrading our ecosystems undermines our own wellbeing. Humans are part of nature and cannot survive without its nourishment. Until we modernize our legal and cultural relationship with nature, our own health will continue to suffer alongside the health of all species.

The Great Lakes Drown in Plastic Pollution

The U.S. and Canada together discard 22 million pounds of plastic into the waters of the Great Lakes each year, according to a new Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) study. Most of it washes up along the shores, accounting for 80 percent of the litter found there.[20]

Plastic pollution in Lake Michigan equals 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles dumped into the lake every year. "Every piece of plastic entering our watersheds is an example of a serious design flaw: we are manufacturing products that have no recovery plan or value after they leave consumer's hands," said Anna Cummins, co-founder and global strategy director of 5 Gyres Institute. "Just as we demand that people dispose of their trash properly, we must also demand that companies take responsibility for the end life of their products."[21]

Unfortunately, the plastic doesn’t go away, but rather gets broken down into microplastic particles of less than one millimeter in diameter, creating a Garbage Patch of microplastic in the Great Lakes. Testing suggests that in terms of concentration there are twice as much microplastic particles in the Great Lakes as there are in oceans across the globe.[22] Rivers flowing into the Great Lakes also contain high levels of microplastics.[23]

Efforts Made to Halt the Decline of the Great Lakes

Many international agreements, like the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement[24] between the U.S. and Canada, and federal regulations, like the Clean Water Act,[25] as well as state and local water quality standards, now exist.

Other examples of initiatives related to the wellbeing of the Great Lakes include:

  • The Remedial Action Plan, which works to reverse the downward trend the Great Lakes have been facing by forming regional partnerships to identify “Beneficial Use Impairments” (BUI) that are causing sections of the lakes to be listed as “Areas of Concern” (AOC)[26]
  • The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal effort initiated in 2009 that funds hundreds of projects at high ecosystem stress sites, representing the largest investment in the Great Lakes over the past two decades[27]
  • The Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO), which coordinates U.S. efforts with Canada under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem[28]

Despite the good intentions of these efforts, we must realize that they have yet to restore the Great Lakes to health. ELC argues that such programs do slow down the degradation of Great Lakes ecosystems, and that without such efforts the rate of environmental degradation would have been much worse. However, a new approach recognizing the rights of nature is necessary to restore the Great Lakes to health and ensure their long-lasting protection.

Rights of Nature for the Great Lakes

A growing movement in the U.S. and worldwide seeks to recognize and enforce fundamental rights for nature. Like other rights-based movements before (e.g. women’s rights, anti-slavery, and so forth), the movement to establish rights for nature seeks to ensure that the rights of ecosystems are both recognized and enforced in a court of law.

Establishing legal rights for the Great Lakes would provide long-lasting protection for this unique, important ecosystem. It would also ensure that nature’s needs are always met rather than only when it is convenient. An entity that is treated as mere property lacking rights, as nature is now, will never have its interests fully represented. ELC seeks to change this dynamic for the Great Lakes in partnership with Sacred Land Sacred Water.

“The Great Lakes ecosystem is globally imperiled by pollution, water withdrawal, invasive species, agricultural runoff and the nuclear industry. The Great Lakes holds one fifth of the world's fresh water...ONE FIFTH. Initiating Rights of Nature legal structures is the best way to work within a legal/regulatory system that sees fresh water only as a commodity and not a commons” nots Juliee de la Terre, from Sacred Land Sacred Water.

Legal rights for the Great Lakes will allow local communities and indigenous tribes to serve as guardians of nature to enforce the inherent rights of the ecosystem. So, for example, if pollution is destroying a local waterway, a member of the community can sue the polluter on behalf of the waterway and seek a court order calling for its restoration to health (and an end to the excessive pollution) as a legal right. 

Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Great Lakes

To advance this campaign, ELC has worked with environmental leaders throughout the Great Lakes Region to uphold its rights. This document describes the fundamental rights to which all waterways in the Great Lakes Region are entitled. The document, once finalized (feedback is still welcome), will serve as a blueprint for local communities, tribes, regional and state governments, and, eventually, national governments (i.e. USA and Canada) as they work to recognize and implement the rights of nature within the Great Lakes Basin. We encourage you to review, give feedback on and support us to protect this essential ecosystem!

As the next step, ELC and partners are asking for feedback from interested communities, tribes, and other entities about putting the rights of the Great Lakes into law.

As with any rights-based movement, early adopters are essential to giving momentum to the movement. We are confident that these rights will begin to be put into law in 2018, and that the entire Great Lakes Basin will have legal rights in the near future – to the benefit of humans and nature. 

Does your community want to establish legal rights for the Great Lakes? Contact gwilson@earthlaw.org to learn more.

Want to get more involved?


[1] https://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/great-lakes-facts-and-figures

[2] https://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/great-lakes-facts-and-figures

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Lakes

[4] https://binational.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/GL-Summer2017_Final.pdf

[5] http://glisa.umich.edu/media/files/GLISA_climate_change_summary.pdf

[6] https://binational.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/GL-Summer2017_Final.pdf

[7] http://glisa.umich.edu/media/files/GLISA_climate_change_summary.pdf

[8] https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/education/ourlakes/facts.html

[9] https://books.google.com/books?id=g1u9BwAAQBAJ&pg=PP5&lpg=PP5&dq=978-1-55365-197-0&source=bl&ots=jhAuBHfCWK&sig=OWi7OcRiKo3P0wY-4ses2CUbq7k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFkdqKw6_XAhUCxYMKHdcnC10Q6AEIKDAB#v=onepage&q=978-1-55365-197-0&f=false

[10] https://books.google.com/books?id=g1u9BwAAQBAJ&pg=PP5&lpg=PP5&dq=978-1-55365-197-0&source=bl&ots=jhAuBHfCWK&sig=OWi7OcRiKo3P0wY-4ses2CUbq7k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFkdqKw6_XAhUCxYMKHdcnC10Q6AEIKDAB#v=onepage&q=978-1-55365-197-0&f=false

[11] https://books.google.com/books?id=g1u9BwAAQBAJ&pg=PP5&lpg=PP5&dq=978-1-55365-197-0&source=bl&ots=jhAuBHfCWK&sig=OWi7OcRiKo3P0wY-4ses2CUbq7k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFkdqKw6_XAhUCxYMKHdcnC10Q6AEIKDAB#v=onepage&q=978-1-55365-197-0&f=false

[12] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/midwest/ct-great-lakes-pollution-20171128-story.html

[13] https://books.google.com/books?id=g1u9BwAAQBAJ&pg=PP5&lpg=PP5&dq=978-1-55365-197-0&source=bl&ots=jhAuBHfCWK&sig=OWi7OcRiKo3P0wY-4ses2CUbq7k&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFkdqKw6_XAhUCxYMKHdcnC10Q6AEIKDAB#v=onepage&q=978-1-55365-197-0&f=false]

[14] https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/article/pollution-great-lakes

[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/05/us/lifting-ban-toledo-says-its-water-is-safe-to-drink-again.html

[16] https://www.glerl.noaa.gov/education/ourlakes/facts.html

[17] http://www.regions.noaa.gov/great-lakes/index.php/great_lakes-restoration-initiative/toxics/].

[18] https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/chemical-pollution-great-lakes.html

[19] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/neskantaga-water-plan-1.4225889

[20] https://www.ecowatch.com/plastic-great-lakes-2157466316.html

[21] Plastic pollution in Lake Michigan is approximately the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles dumped into the lake every year.

[22] http://voices.nationalgeographic.org/2013/04/12/new-concerns-about-plastic-pollution-in-great-lakes-garbage-patch/].

[23] https://www.usgs.gov/news/widespread-plastic-pollution-found-great-lakes-tributaries

[24] www.on.ec.gc.ca/glwqa/facts-e.html

[25] www.epa.gov/watertrain/cwa/

[26] https://www.epa.gov/great-lakes-aocs/restoring-great-lakes-aocs

[27] http://www.ns.umich.edu/new/releases/21040-environmental-threat-map-highlights-great-lakes-restoration-challenges

[28] https://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/about-great-lakes-national-program-office-glnpo