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Great Lakes Article:

Great Lakes water safe to drink, not to swim, scientists say


October 6,2001

MILWAUKEE -- The Great Lakes still rank among the world's best sources of drinking water, but they are under siege from invasive species, airborne toxins and urban sprawl and, much of the time, are not a safe place to swim.

That's the consensus of scientists in the United States and Canada who jointly released their fourth biennial assessment of the "State of the Great Lakes.''

The 2001 report released this week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Canadian counterpart, Environment Canada, rates the health of the Great Lakes as measured by 33 environmental indicators ranging from deformities and tumors in fish (poor) to contaminants in colonial nesting birds (good).

"Levels of toxic chemical contamination have dropped in many fish species,'' said Thomas Skinner, EPA Region 5 administrator. "However, many fish are still unsafe to eat. Contaminant levels will need to continue to decline for many years before advisories can be lifted or modified.''

The report -- which is the most comprehensive measure of factors affecting the Great Lakes and their drainage basins -- noted these signs of good health:

The health and abundance of the walleye fishery, although catches were highest in Lake Erie and lowest in Lakes Michigan and Superior.

A drop of 50 percent to 90 percent in concentrations of contaminants in the eggs of herring gulls since monitoring began in 1974, although those in Lake Michigan continue to have high levels of DDE, a product of degraded pesticide DDT, now banned.

The minimal level of chemical contaminants in drinking water, even before treatment.

Only two symptoms of poor health were cited: deformities and tumors in fish, particularly in Lake Erie, and continued invasions from exotic species, which were named the greatest biological threat to Great Lakes aquatic systems.

However, beach closings increased and the number of beaches that experienced no closings decreased.

No specific lakes or parts of the Great Lakes earned "good'' ratings, and Lake Michigan's health was described as mixed, with improvement for fish populations but deterioration for fish habitat.

Although lake trout are reproducing naturally throughout Lake Superior, natural reproduction remains at very low levels or is nonexistent in the rest of the Great Lakes.

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