New report finds gaps in environmental data collection in the Lake Michigan basin

Ann Arbor, Mich. — Environmental monitoring — the collection of data continuously over time — is lacking in several key areas in the Lake Michigan basin, according to a newly released report from the Great Lakes Commission. While report findings reveal extensive monitoring in categories such as drinking water quality, surface water contaminants, bottom sediments, stream characteristics and some aquatic nuisance species, monitoring is less extensive for other parameters such as terrestrial and aquatic habitat changes, amphibian diversity and abundance, and deposition of air toxins. Monitoring for many other indicators is unknown. The report comments on the need for coordination among organizations collecting this important environmental data. “Organizations make most, if not all, decisions about their monitoring programs based on goals for their local coverage area,” states the report. “Rarely does this area cover the entire Lake Michigan basin.”

Monitoring is important to environmental managers because it provides baseline information on the overall health of the ecosystem. Managers often rely on specific “indicators” — such as bacteria levels or changes in wildlife populations — to help them develop a picture of the health of a given ecosystem. It is much like a medical doctor relying on a set of indicators, such as cholesterol and blood sugar levels, to provide a snapshot of a person’s health.

The report is based on findings from the Lake Michigan Tributary Monitoring project, which was conducted through a unique collaboration between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), Great Lakes Commission and local representatives from 14 tributary watersheds. The project also produced an inventory of monitoring programs in the basin.

The report evaluates monitoring programs conducted by a variety of federal, state, local and nongovernmental entities and summarizes these efforts geographically and by program focus. This information is presented across 14 tributary watersheds, as well as for the open waters of Lake Michigan. The monitoring coverage is further assessed for its ability to address environmental indicators developed for the Lake Michigan Lakewide Management Plan (LaMP).

A number of general findings are discussed. These findings include the limited use of monitoring information collected by local agencies and volunteers, the lack of a centralized location to connect monitoring information, and an overall lack of coordination between monitoring programs in the basin. The report recommends actions to address these and other important shortfalls in the collective monitoring regime for Lake Michigan. Specific chapters are included that analyze the monitoring coverage within 14 key tributary watersheds. Much of the information in these chapters was collected from local sources with the help of local project participants. This aspect allowed local participants to establish better linkages to organizations monitoring environmental quality in their watersheds. Kathy Evans, Water Quality Coordinator with the Muskegon Conservation District, says “the project allowed us to establish better connections with local monitoring agencies and also to work on filling in data gaps with volunteer monitoring.”

The project is the first of its kind to focus on the Lake Michigan basin as a whole, as opposed to individual political jurisdictions. Information from the monitoring inventory has been compiled into a database used to support local and lakewide planning efforts, including cleanups in the 10 toxic “hot spots” along Lake Michigan. “The Lake Michigan LaMP process is committed to choosing indicators that will keep the public informed on the status of Lake Michigan,” says Judy Beck, Lake Michigan Team manager with the U.S. EPA. “Choosing these and developing a coordinated monitoring plan has been helped immensely by the work of the Tributary Monitoring Project.” Phase two of this project, now underway, will make the monitoring inventory available on the Internet in a geographically searchable database.

The overall goal of the inventory project is to consolidate information on environmental monitoring efforts in the Lake Michigan basin so that environmental managers, as well as the general public, will be able to quickly find the information needed to make sound decisions. “Accurate information is critical to making wise decisions on how to protect and manage the vast natural resources in the Lake Michigan basin,” says Beck, “Monitoring helps decisionmakers understand the problems facing the environment, what causes them and the effectiveness of efforts to address them.”

The final report from the Lake Michigan Tributary Monitoring Project is available online, or by contacting Ric Lawson at 734-665-9135, rlawson@glc.org.

For immediate release: October 16, 2000
Contact: Ric Lawson, rlawson@glc.org

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The Great Lakes Commission, chaired by Nathaniel E. Robinson (Wisconsin), is a nonpartisan, binational compact agency created by state and U.S. federal law and dedicated to promoting a strong economy, healthy environment and high quality of life for the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region and its residents. The Commission consists of state legislators, agency officials and governors’ appointees from its eight member states. Associate membership for Ontario and Quebec was established through the signing of a “Declaration of Partnership.” The Commission maintains a formal Observer program involving U.S. and Canadian federal agencies, tribal authorities, binational agencies and other regional interests. The Commission offices are located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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