by Chris Johnson
Throughout the various issues of the once mighty and not-to-be forgotten westcoast surf periodical Island Swell and, more recently, both the paper and internet versions of Northern Swell, I have read reference to and even seen authenticated photographs of surf and persons surfing in the Great Lakes. I was not overly surprised by boasts of shoulder high beach break; after all, the lakes can loosen storms forceful enough to send bulk freighters for the cover of sheltered bays. However, for this west coaster what has always preceded images of surf is the perception that the largest system of fresh water in the world is nothing more than an effluent/garbage receptacle for the many cities, towns and industrial complexes that dot the Great Lakes' shorelines.
The Great Lakes Atlas published by the Federal Government of Canada and the U.S. Environment Protection Agency nicely outlines the perils that threaten the lifeblood of southern Ontario and northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. A library of reports, management and action plans produced by various provincial, state and non-government organisations since the late 1960s confirm that the deterioration of water quality in the Great Lakes has been on the public mind for some time. Algae blooms, floating debris, oil slicks and closed beaches are difficult to ignore by all, but the most money hungry industrialists and developers.
The first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S. in 1972 dealt with many of these more visible problems and initiated research that identified the less obvious by-products of large scale agriculture and shoreline industry including DDT and other toxic contaminants. The second Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement had led to an ecosystem approach to dealing with pollutants in the system as well as an increased emphasis on toxic substances. Although much work has been done and the apparent health of the lakes has improved, many problems must still be overcome before the Lakes return to a naturally functioning ecosystem.
For those of you that surf the Lakes or plan on making a trip in that direction you may want to scan the following list of areas that have been identified as areas of "Use Impairment" . While this data base may contain less surf relevant, but equally important categories such as Fish and Wildlife Habitat it also includes such annoyances as Beach Closings, Taste and Odour in Drinking Water, Undesirable Algae/Eutrophication and Fish Tumours and Other Deformities. Although the list is not exhaustive and covers only relatively short term easily identified and categorised effects, it is clear that the Great Lakes are still in need of assistance. After all, it is going to take plenty of money and political will to reverse the ill effects of 160 years of shoreline development.
Instead of simply avoiding hot zones you may want to make an effort to aid in bettering water quality and returning the Lakes to a more natural state. Pressuring your local and provincial/state governments to place a cap on discharges as well as continuing or increasing remedial efforts are only a few of an endless number of things that can be done to improve the state of the lakes. While this advice may be specific to those of you that live on or near the shores of the Great Lakes it should not be lost on the rest of us. Taking responsibility for the quality of our local waters, salt or otherwise, and the impact we and our industry have on the this life giving entity is a requisite to being a decent human being. At the risk of climbing to the second story of my Costco size soapbox, remember that small changes in lifestyle and subtle actions within your community will ultimately lead to a healthier global environment. If you care you can make a difference if you don't well then I hope that you have an opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasures of skin rashes, and eye infections acquired at your local break.
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