Outdoor column: Scientists fear Great Lakes poised for disaster

Published 9:41 pm Monday, January 2, 2006

By Staff
As is human nature, those of us that live around the Great Lakes take them for granted. To us the Lakes are just a playground that has always been there and always will be. We could be in for a major shock, though. Earlier this month a group of 75 scientists that have long been studying these magnificent waters went public stating the Great Lakes are nearing an ecological breakdown. The effects of a myriad of things from pollution to changes in hydrology and invasive species have been building and building in the Great Lakes and they fear the last straw that finally breaks the camel's back may not be far off.
The Great Lakes, which many scientists now consider a single body of water, are truly one of nature's marvels. They are the world's largest freshwater resource, containing 95 percent of this country's freshwater and one-fifth of the freshwater on the entire planet. Of course, there have been ongoing efforts to protect this great resource at both state and federal levels. Diversion of their waters to outside areas has long been restricted. Starting in the mid-1900s devastating pollution from certain toxic chemicals such as DDT, PCB and mercury that all but turned the Lakes and adjacent areas into a biological desert were curbed. More recently, efforts to clean up some of the polluted areas have been instituted but problems continue to build. We aren't keeping up with the hygiene needs of our most precious resource.
So far Great Lakes conservation projects, mostly under Federal auspices, have been done piecemeal - find a problem and fix it. With limited funding and resources this approach just isn't working. In 2004 President Bush ordered a multi-agency task force be formed to identify the major problems affecting the Great Lakes and draft a detailed recovery plan to deal with them. The plan was released two weeks ago and calls for the allocation of $20 billion over the next 15 years, largely from the federal coffer with lesser amounts from the eight states bordering the lakes as well as some Indian tribes and private monies.
About two-thirds of the money would go to repair and upgrade old and faulty sewer systems that are dumping inadequately treated waste into the Lakes and its tributaries. Another very significant problem that would be addressed is invasive species. Some 180 alien animal and plant species now inhabit the Great Lakes, an estimated 40 percent introduced by discharged ballast water from foreign ships. On average a new alien species appears every seven months, most from ballast water. The deleterious effects of these aliens have cost billions of dollars. It's estimated that just the zebra muscle alone has cost $2 billion over the last 20 years. Alien fish species such as the round gobe, Eurasian ruffe and Asian carp are fast replacing certain native fishes. Barriers against alien species intrusion are called for as well as treatment of ship ballast water and holds before entering the country (Michigan has already passed a law to take effect in 2007 requiring this treatment for ships plying its waters and other Great Lakes States are considering the same).
The plan would also restore and create an additional 550,000 acres of wetlands along the shorelines. These are critical for filtering pollution as well as providing wildlife habitat. The plan calls for researching dwindling fish populations and increased stocking of native fishes. Last but certainly not least, it urges clean up of 31 toxic sites affecting Great Lakes waters, nearly half of which are in Michigan.
That all sounds well and good but there's a hitch. A few unexpected side expenses have dipped into the federal slush fund, the primary backer of the recovery plan. Just little things like a few $100 billion into Iraq and several billion for Katrina and Wilma, for example. That coupled with public demand to curb spending has both Congress and the administration sitting mighty tight on the purse. Nothing has been determined yet, but optimism is running low for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, the Great Lakes states and Canada are now devising plans for proceeding on as best as possible with or without the Feds. Carpe diem.