Great Lakes near ecological breakdown: scientists
By Andrew Stern Thu Dec 8, 2:10 PM ET
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Stresses from polluted rivers to
invasive species threaten to trigger an ecological breakdown
in the Great Lakes, a group of scientists hoping to sway
U.S. environmental policy said on Thursday.
Seventy-five scientists who study the world's largest
collective body of fresh water released their report on
the myriad problems that need cleanup or restoration ahead
of two key policy announcements next week.
"This is just a critical period for the Great Lakes,"
Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's
Great Lakes office, said about next week's announcements.
A task force comprising federal agencies, Congress, local
government officials and regional Indian tribes is scheduled
to release its much-anticipated final plan for preserving
the Great Lakes requested by U.S.
President George W. Bush in 2004.
The body's preliminary report in July recommended $20
billion in federal, state and private funding over 15
years to upgrade antiquated municipal sewer systems, restore
500,000 acres of wetlands, clean polluted harbors and
bays, and pay for other efforts.
But a federal oversight group subsequently suggested
to the White House that the budget was too tight to allow
additional funding. Federal spending on Great Lakes cleanup
over the past decade was $800 million, according to the
Government Accountability Office.
After the task force releases its plan on Monday, governors
representing U.S. states and Canadian provinces that border
the Great Lakes will announce revisions to century-old
rules that restrict water withdrawals and diversions from
the lakes. More than 30 million people rely on the Great
Lakes for drinking water, and large-scale diversions to
far-off states or countries have been forbidden.
Threats to the Great Lakes are converging, scientists
who worked on the report said.
"There's widespread agreement that the Great Lakes
are under tremendous stress," said Alfred Beeton
of the University of Michigan. "Toxic substances
... overfishing, invasive species, changes in hydrology
affecting rivers -- now we can add the effects of global
"These have been dealt with individually. What we
need to do is look at the ecosystem -- the combination
of stresses," Beeton said. "Historical sources
of stress have combined with new ones and we have arrived
at a tipping point. What we mean is that ecosystem changes
will occur rapidly and unexpectedly."
The report emphasized the need for large-scale ecosystem
restoration and not piecemeal efforts, coauthor Don Scavia
said. Particularly important was preserving or restoring
shoreline "buffer zones," such as wetlands and
lake tributaries to help the lakes heal themselves.
"These are the key areas for filtering the contaminants
that enter the lakes. It's also where most of the wildlife
habitat is," Scavia said.
Shoreline pollution that fouls Great Lakes beaches is
extending into the middle of some of the five Great Lakes,
sudden drops in oxygen levels in the water threaten native
species, and native fish have been crowded out by invasive
species that have changed the character of the lakes,
the scientists added.