Nestled between the Canadian-United States border rests the largest surface freshwater system in the world. The Great Lakes hold nearly 20 percent of the Earth’s surface freshwater. Yet with increasing degradation, this highly important water source continues to battle an influx of invasive species, contamination from pollutants and the widespread loss of coastal wetlands.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, over 35 million people live in the Great Lakes basin, an area that includes Ontario and Quebec, and eight US states spanning from Minnesota to New York. Aside from the obvious provision of drinking water, the Great Lakes provide a range of services, from agricultural to shipping and transportation to recreation.

A natural provider

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, estimates that the Great Lakes provide 56 billion gallons of water a day, water that is used for municipal, agricultural and industrial purposes. Due to the immense access to water, the Great Lakes are the production grounds for more than 90 percent of iron ore. In order to transport the goods manufactured and grown in the Great Lakes Basin, the St. Lawrence Seaway was built in 1959. Since its creation, 200 million tons of cargo are shipped each year.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem Team states, “Water-related outdoor recreational activities are valued at 15 billion dollars annually, of which sport fishing activities contribute $4 billion.”

Fishing and packing is another lucrative economic industry the Great Lakes offer. The NOAA states that roughly 65 million pounds of fish are harvested each year, adding another billion dollars to the Great Lakes economy.

Yet, “Commercial fishery in the region has been declining , due to over-fishing, pollution, habitat destruction, and introduction of invasive species,” a study by the NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory reveals.

The economic span of the Great Lakes make their health an issue of international well-being. According to the NOAA, the amount of time it takes for the lakes to naturally get rid of pollutants can be as long as 191 years. Each year more invasive species infiltrate the lakes, agricultural run-off increases chemical pollution and wetlands are increasingly being paved over.

According to Northern Michigan’s leading water protection organization, The Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, “Wetlands are known to be the most biologically productive ecosystems in the temperate regions of the earth. Their biological productivity rivals that of tropical rainforests.”

“More than half of the original wetlands and two-thirds of coastal wetlands in the Great Lakes Basin have been degraded, drained, or converted since pre-settlement times,” the Watershed Council explains. “It is estimated, for example, that between 70 and 80 percent of the original wetlands of Southern Ontario have been lost since European settlement, and losses in the U.S. portion of the basin range from 42 percent in Minnesota to 92 percent in Ohio.”

In order to ensure the lakes’ health, and reverse continued degradation, scientists are turning to new methods that not only work to save habitats, but also save time and money.

Restoration through mapping

A team of researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin – Madison, are taking the challenge head on. According to their press release, “Their efforts have produced the most comprehensive map to date of the Great Lakes’ stressors, and also the first map to explicitly account for all major types of stressors on the lakes in a quantitative way.”

Team leader and University of Michigan professor, David Allen, explains that the map represents the combined influence of 34 stressors on each of the five Great Lakes and ranks the importance of each stressor in relation to how it affects the lake itself. The team, led by Allan and Sigrid Smith of the University of Michigan, Peter McIntyre of UW-Madison, and Ben Halpern of the University of California – Santa Barbara, surveyed over 150 researchers and natural resource managers, mapping data and comparing the ranking of stressors to assess the health of the lakes.

“Our goal was to consolidate all the best data available on threats to the Great Lakes,” says Peter McIntyre. “No previous study has dealt with multiple stressors in a spatially-explicit way, or merged them using a consensus of expert opinion about their ecological impacts.”

According to McIntyre, the maps offer a visual depiction of the various levels of stress each lake faces. The study revealed that Lake Ontario has the highest level of stress, whereas Lake Superior has the lowest. Major stressors vary greatly across specific locations and lakes, but overwhelmingly, the threat of invasive species, decreased ice cover on the lakes in winter months due to climate change, and increased levels of phosphorus due to agricultural runoff have most negatively affected Great Lakes habitats.

“We found that the places where people are using the lakes for fishing, swimming, boating, and bird-watching generally experience higher-than-expected threat levels. In addition, sites currently targeted for restoration efforts are almost entirely in the high-stress areas,” McIntyre says.

Restoration and fiscal responsibility

As of November 15th, 2012, the Environmental Project Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have funded over 500 grants, totaling 268 million dollars, and invested over 118 million dollars in Great Lakes Legacy Act projects.

The dedication to cleaning up the Great Lakes was solidified with an international agreement called The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement signed in 1972. The agreement, signed by Canada and the United States commits both countries to working together to protect the lakes. According to Environment Canada, the EPA and several other Great Lakes partners evaluate lake conditions as well as establish restoration goals.

“This process involves the development and assessment of key indicators for issues such as invasive species, human health, contamination, and degradation and loss of aquatic and terrestrial habitats. It is challenging to simplify the complex nature and condition of the Great Lakes ecosystem; however reporting on indicators is a way to take complex information and make it more understandable,” Environment Canada explains.

With federal spending under the scrutiny of the public eye, efficient and fiscally responsible restoration projects are becoming more and more attractive. The Great Lakes Mapping Project aims to help communities, non-profits, and government agencies plan the smartest restoration projects that will produce results, while limiting spending.

“I think of the maps as helping us to be as strategic as possible in our spending,” explains Sigrid Smith of the University of Michigan.

The research team’s recently released paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states, “With increasing pressure placed on natural systems by growing human populations, both scientists and resource managers need a better understanding of the relationships between cumulative stress from human activities and valued ecosystem services.”

The paper goes on to say, “Societies often seek to mitigate threats to these services through largescale, costly restoration projects, such as the over one billion dollar Great Lakes Restoration Initiative currently underway…Our results demonstrate that joint spatial analysis of stressors and ecosystem services can provide a critical foundation for maximizing social and ecological benefits from restoration investments.”

Although the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has seen success in several restoration projects, the Great Lakes mapping team suggests that future projects that focus on the interplay between various stressors would minimize spending while indicating areas that may respond more quickly to restoration than areas that have been degraded beyond repair.

“We think some groups will find that locations that provide valued human benefits and where fewer stressors must be addressed may be compelling for new projects – less work may be needed to make these projects successful,” explains Smith.

The future of restoration

As widespread environmental degradation continues across the world, efficient restoration projects are becoming increasingly important. The Great Lakes Mapping Project is just one example of how environmental restoration, human benefit, and economic viability can co-exist.

Looking at restoration from multiple angles, analyzing stressors and how ecosystems and humans interplay is key to slowing or stopping degradation before the results are irreversible.

“The point of our work is that there are multiple stressors,” says Allan. “The tension between what is the most important stressor and how multiple stressors affect one place is key. Understanding how multiple stressors affect an ecosystem is our core message.”

These maps open the discussion on global restoration. By making calculated decisions based on extensive data, the world’s leading environmental issues can be approached with realistic solutions that can save time and money.