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Great Lakes Article:

Restoring the Great Lakes
Gladwin County Record
10/02/03


A generation ago, the Great Lakes were a huge reservoir of persistent toxic substances. Our fish were contaminated with DDT and PCBs. Our fisheries were yielding significantly less than historic highs, and the blue pike and species of deep water ciscoes were extinct. Scientists were beginning to understand that certain chemicals accumulate through the food chain causing health concerns to fish, wildlife and humans.

In 1969, Michigan became the first state in the nation to ban DDT and in 1976, the state developed strong regulations on PCBs. In 1972, the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes. In the years that followed, there were major reductions in pollution discharges as a result of new standards, chemical bans, and improved sewage treatment.

The Great Lakes have definitely improved since the 1970s. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act, which I sponsored in 1990, will reduce direct toxic water discharges by six to eight million pounds per year.

Since 1999, the EPA estimates that more than 1.7 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment have been removed or treated at a cost of more than $300 million in the 31 U.S. "Areas of Concern" in the Great Lakes. These Areas of Concern were designated as such by the 1987 Protocol to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement because of severe pollution problems. Thirteen of these severely degraded geographic areas are found in Michigan.

While aquatic invasive species continue to threaten Great Lakes, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and its partners have been able to reduce populations of one invasive species, the sea lamprey, by 90 percent. Also, the electric barrier in the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal is proving to be successful at preventing the Asian carp from entering into the Great Lakes.

While the Great Lakes have made strides in recovering, historical problems still exist and new problems are on the horizon. We have been unable to keep pace with the needs of the lakes. There are still hundreds of fish advisories issued every year, and the number of beach closings seems to be increasing. Lake Erie is once again experiencing a "dead zone" from high levels of phosphorus. Since the 1987 Protocol to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, our nation has not been able to fully restore and delist any of the 31 U.S. Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes.

In April, the General Accounting Office (GAO) released a study that inventoried all of the federal and state programs operating in the Great Lakes and looked at the amount of money being spent. The GAO study found that there is no over-arching strategy to restore the Great Lakes, funding is limited, and there is inadequate data to assess restoration efforts.

The GAO study shows that the federal government is simply not keeping pace with the needs of the lakes. As co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, I have joined with my co-chair, Senator Mike DeWine of Ohio, and a coalition of House members to reinvigorate efforts to protect the Great Lakes.

In July, Senator DeWine and I, along with Senator Debbie Stabenow and others, introduced the Great Lakes Environmental Restoration Acts, which would provide up to $600 million per year for restoration activities. This funding would not replace existing programs; rather, it would add to them. The legislation would improve coordination and efficiency among the federal agencies working in the Great Lakes. Finally, the bill would require the EPA to set up a federal monitoring system in the Great Lakes to provide the data that is needed to foster remediation projects and programs.

The Great Lakes are a unique treasure to the people of Michigan and all Americans, and we are temporary stewards. I believe that we must ensure that the federal government meets its ongoing obligation to protect and restore the Great Lakes. Congress must act to keep pace with the needs of the lakes so that we can continue to build on the work that has already been done.

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