A new push to clean up the Great Lakes
US, Canada, and several states join to tackle everything
from sewage to mischievous carp.
By Amanda Paulson
The Christian Science Monitor
Published December 22nd, 2004
CHICAGO – It sounds like something out of a bad science-fiction
movie: fish that grow up to 100 pounds and six feet long,
scour the bottom of lakes and rivers, eating voraciously,
and have a tendency to leap onto passing motorboats and
They are Asian carp and they are just one of the many
threats facing the Great Lakes these days working their
way up the Mississippi River, popping up just 25 miles
from Lake Michigan in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
Zebra mussels are another threat, littering beaches with
their shells and perhaps permanently altering the region's
food chain. And the constant infusion of toxins like mercury
and PCBs have led to fish-consumption advisories and contaminated
The Great Lakes, it's safe to say, are in trouble. Residents
of Illinois or Michigan or New York don't have to worry
about disappearing fish or shorelines anytime soon, but
in ecological terms, the lakes have been deteriorating
rapidly: invasive species, toxic waste, development, sewage,
pollution from agriculture and industry have all been
taking a toll.
In response, officials launched a collaborative restoration
effort this month that is unprecedented in its scale and
bureaucratic complexity. The coalition includes elected
officials from eight states and two countries, environmental
groups, mayors, and some 30 Indian tribes.
The first meeting may have been largely ceremonial, but
many of those trying to protect the region are hopeful
that the collaboration will give prominence to an ecoystem
that falls under so many different governmental jurisdictions.
"We need a planning process that's fast, that gets
everyone on same page and pulling in the right direction,
so that we can go back to Congress with one voice and
say this is the money we need," says Andy Buchsbaum,
director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes
Natural Resource Center.
The scope of the problem is daunting. The Great Lakes
are the second-largest surface freshwater system in the
world, and they have statistics to match: a $5 billion
fishing industry, 20 percent of the world's fresh water,
a source of drinking water for 33 million people, and
11,000 miles of shoreline.
"They're not just nationally significant, they're
globally significant," says Gary Gulezian, director
of the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office. He's
hopeful the collaboration will spur clean-up efforts.
"The ecological complexity of the Great Lakes is
only rivaled by its institutional complexity," he
says. "This effort is designed to bring everyone
One of the most concrete successes of the federal government's
new focus on the region involves two species of Asian
carp. The fish, say experts, completely destroy habitat
for native species, and have the potential to turn the
Great Lakes into giant carp ponds. When the carp neared
the lakes this fall, Congress allocated money for an emergency
electronic barrier across the Illinois River, and work
is now under way on a permanent barrier.
Ecologists are eager to do everything possible to keep
the carp out, since dealing with invasive species once
they enter the system can be much trickier. "Prevention
is your first line of defense," says David Reid,
a research scientist with NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental
Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich. There are currently
around 180 non-native species living in the lakes, says
Mr. Reid, although perhaps only a dozen of those might
be considered truly invasive.
The poster child for such "bad actors," as
Reid calls them, is the zebra mussel. Since they first
appeared in Lake St. Clair in 1988, from ballast water
discharged from oceangoing ships, the mussels have spread
rapidly. More disturbing than the proliferating shells
on some beaches is the rapid disappearance of tiny Diporeia
shrimp, which historically constituted up to 80 percent
of the food available at the bottom of the Great Lakes.
Now, some places in Lake Michigan that used to have 10,000
of the shrimp per square meter have none.
What's needed, most scientists agree, is both more resources
to combat the existing invasive species problems as well
as policy changes - particularly to the regulations governing
ballast water - to keep more from being introduced. And
some are hopeful that the new collaboration will help
with speedier responses. When the Eurasian Ruffe showed
up near Duluth in the 1980s, Reid remembers, it was discovered
quickly. But by the time local officials had gone through
all the necessary bureaucratic channels to get a consensus
on the response, six years had passed and the fish was
no longer contained.
Invasive species, meanwhile, are just one of eight issues
the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration identified. Habitat
destruction and sewage overflows are a problem, as well
as the infusion of toxins like mercury. Some of what's
needed may be policy changes - the regulations governing
coal-fired power plant emissions, which deposit mercury
into the lakes, are particularly controversial, and an
issue the EPA has largely declined to address - but money,
in the end, is pivotal.
EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt hasn't guaranteed that
the collaboration will lead to any new funding. This has
many people worried. Others hope that the planning, with
reports expected in a year, will give new weight to bills
already pending in both houses asking for several billion
dollars for the region.
"This is going to require $4 billion to $5 billion
of federal money to clean it up," says Rahm Emanuel,
an Illinois congressman who wrote one of the bills. "The
good news is we don't have to guess what the problems
are. My big worry here is that they're hoping everybody
gets blinded by the neon lights. At the end of the day
- show me the money."