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Great Lakes Article:

Great Lakes gathering draws wave of support
By Kyla King
The Grand Rapids Press
Published September 9, 2005

WEST MICHIGAN -- After three decades of lobbying to improve the water quality of the Great Lakes, Peter Wege is making some progress.

But even as he looked out Thursday at an unprecedented gathering of national and statewide government and environmental leaders assembled to tackle the issue, he was quick to let them know he is not satisfied.

"They say it's going to take 20 years (to clean up the lakes)," said Wege, a local philanthropist and former Steelcase Inc. executive. "I'm 85. I want it done by the time I'm 90. All those in favor, hold up their hands."

Wege's comments drew chuckles from the crowd of leaders gathered Thursday at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids. They were brought together in part through Wege's efforts for the first "Great Lakes Restoration" conference.

It's the first of five planned conferences in the eight states and two Canadian provinces that surround the five Great Lakes. The goal is to create a timeline modeled after an effort in Florida that succeeded in winning billions in state and federal aid to restore the Everglades.

In response to increased attention to the issue from the White House and Congress, Wege formed the "Healing Our Waters" coalition last year.

The group drew up an agenda for the federal government that focused on improving water quality, ridding the lakes of invasive species and cleaning up toxic sediment.

Thursday's conference comes after the July release of a $20 billion fast-tracked plan established by President Bush.

U.S. Environmental Protection Administrator Steven Johnson was scheduled to attend until he was called away by Hurricane Katrina issues.

Wege said he was encouraged to see federal interest in the effort.

"It's a good sign they're reacting," said Wege, who in the past has expressed frustration with the current administration's environmental commitments. "Hopefully, it's a new light shinning."

Gov. Jennifer Granholm attended the conference and vented her frustration with state legislators, whom she said have stalled her efforts to pass a law to regulate Great Lakes water withdrawal.

"How much longer do we have to wait in order to get a statute that protects the greatest resource we have?" Granholm asked. "It's a shameful thing that Michigan is the only state in the Great Lakes basin that does not have a water-protecting statute."

Granholm urged attendees to elect federal and state legislators who pledge to protect the lakes.

"Water is not a Democratic or Republican issue," she said. "You're going to need some action by the federal government or the government of your state in order to put feet to your prayers."

State Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, who attended Thursday's conference, said her interest in the issue grew after she helped establish legislation regulating the discharge of ballast water into the lakes. She now chairs a legislative caucus working to combine the efforts of all eight states and both Canadian provinces.

"We could be studying beach closings over here on the shores of Lake Michigan and they are over on the other side in Milwaukee doing the same thing," Birkholz said. "What we're trying to do is get researchers coordinating their information and we could all benefit."

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