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Great Lakes Article:

Advocates for the environment are still needed, author says
By Jeff Kart
Bay City Times
Published September 6th, 2004

As soon as 50 years in the future, attractions on the Great Lakes may include uncovered shipwrecks exposed by historically low water levels.

That's one of many predictions in "On the Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century," a new book by Dave Dempsey, policy adviser for the Michigan Environmental Council and former environmental adviser to Gov. James Blanchard.

"The real message is that the Great Lakes are drifting toward disaster, but they can be saved if citizens mobilize to protect them," said Dempsey, 47, of Lansing.

The book is packed with tales of past warnings that came true, such as overfishing that helped wipe out the native Michigan Grayling fish and overcutting that cleared forests along the Saginaw River hundreds of years earlier than forecast.

There also are stories of recovery, brought on by people who became vocal and outraged over issues like the "death" of Lake Erie due to pollution and the dumping of waste into Lake Superior by a mining company.

Dempsey said the Great Lakes need advocates again, with ongoing climate change and growing water use and demand.

"In the past decade and a half, people have gotten complacent about the Great Lakes," he said.

People just assume that government and environmental groups are keeping businesses and others in check and making sure the lakes are protected, Dempsey said. But politicians pay a lot of lip service to Great Lakes protection, he said, and there is an unhealthy relationship between industry and government in some areas.

The zebra mussel was first discovered in the Great Lakes in the 1980s, for instance, but controls weren't put into place for 15 years after objections from the shipping industry, Dempsey said.

"The environment is too important to be left to the environmentalists," he said, suggesting that people get active by volunteering and speaking out on environmental issues rather than just making monetary donations to environmental groups.

Terry Miller, chairman of the Lone Tree Council, a Bay City area environmental group, agrees that more advocates are needed.

His group has only a handful of active members, who have been battling with the Dow Chemical Co. over dioxin contamination in the Tittabawassee River and advocating for controls on the grooming of coastal wetlands in the Saginaw Bay.

When the Lone Tree Council formed in the 1970s to oppose plans for a Midland Nuclear Plant, its membership was around 300, Miller said.

Dempsey said today's threats to the lakes are more subtle than in the past, when water pollution caused an Ohio river to catch fire, for example.

"A lot of problems don't have immediate day-to-day impacts on people's lives, but they are contributing to the gradual and steep decline of the lakes as a healthy ecosystem and that will have effects for our children," Dempsey said.

He said previous generations tried to think ahead, by setting aside land for national parks, for instance, and passing laws like the Clean Water Act in the 1970s.

"We seem to be more focused on today and tomorrow than 20 or 30 years from now," Dempsey said. "That's a recipe for the doom of the Great Lakes if it continues."

He said Michigan is the only Great Lakes state with no real water conservation legislation, and no limits on how much water can be taken out.

He encourages people to attend ongoing hearings on the proposed Water Legacy Act, and call for protections against allowing water bottling plants to ship water outside the basin.

No Legacy Act hearings are scheduled in the Saginaw Bay area, but people can make their voices heard by calling their state legislator, he said. Information about how to comment on a complement to the act, an international water diversion protection proposal called Annex 2001, is available online at www.speakongreatlakes.org.

Dempsey's book offers new ideas for governing the Great Lakes that aim to bring citizens back into the process, by using the Internet and creating community councils on Great Lakes issues.

Dempsey's book, published by Michigan State University Press, is available at local book stores and online at www.davedempsey.org.

- Jeff Kart covers the environment and politics for The Times. He can be reached at 894-9639.

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