The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada recognizes 43 Great Lakes Areas Of Concern (AOC). It requires the two countries to coordinate many efforts, including those to avert environmental threats, prevent the spread of pollution and develop plans to protect nearshore areas. It also requires reporting progress to the public on a regular basis.
The International Joint Commission, which oversees that binational agreement, has identified beneficial use impairments of Great Lakes water resources. One of the most difficult impairments on which to report progress is degraded aesthetics, or the low visual appeal of a waterway. The more attractive an area is, the more beneficial it is to those who use it.
AOCs across the Great Lakes have different problems when it comes to aesthetics. In Wisconsin, the problem is usually floating debris, algae and silt. Minnesota cleanup projects find oil slicks, grain dust and mineral pellets. Some of Michigan’s water has unnatural color, foam and suspended solids.
To make it easier to report progress across those different aesthetic issues, monitoring professionals in Wisconsin developed a survey that may simplify the process.
“It’s easy to assess water for drinking or fish consumption (impairments),” said Vicky Harris, Wisconsin Sea Grant water quality and habitat restoration specialist. “But aesthetics are a little more subjective.”
To account for the subjective nature of measuring the beauty of waterways, Harris and other members of the state’s four public advisory committees – one for each AOC there – worked with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to come up with the survey.
“It was a joint effort,” said Harris. “Wisconsin DNR drafted the survey with input from the committees. We made sure the survey had no leading questions, but included some objective measures, as well.”
Harris and others working in the Lower Green Bay and Fox River AOC started using the surveys late last year to assess aesthetics there.
“A lot of our volunteers are agency people or monitoring pros,” said Harris. “There are very few people off the street, but we asked people in the first few years and they rated visual appeal, noted any presence of garbage and said how to make it more appealing. We took their suggestions.”
Harris says the survey is also being used on the St. Louis River estuary, Minnesota’s sole AOC, and on the Milwaukee River. Its wide use allows for results to be compared between AOCs.
“We’ll discuss possibly tweaking survey questions in the future, but it’s important to keep questions consistent from year to year to keep results consistent,” said Harris.
Some questions ask surveyors to note the presence of trash, algae, or scum in the water, while others, like turbidity testing, allows for the use of monitoring equipment. So the survey is a good mix of question types.
John Perrecone, coordinator for the Lower Green Bay and Fox River AOC with the EPA, says the survey is important in addressing degraded aesthetics.
“The aesthetics impairment is different from the other ones,” said Perrecone. “Although it’s subjective, there are objective ways to measure it. And it makes a lot of sense to try. It’s the kind of thing that people notice. If you’re touting your location as a place of recreation and enjoyment and there’s junk in the water, there’s a disconnect.”
Top image: The St. Louis River, where the survey is helping assess the degraded aesthetics of this Area of Concern (Credit: Wisconsin DNR)