Cleaning up the Great Lakes won't be cheap or easy. But it has to be done -- and can be -- as the City of Grand Rapids has shown.
A report from the Sierra Legal Defense Fund, an environmental group, highlights the need to halt an enormous source of pollution in the Great Lakes basin: the dangerous brew of waste, pathogens and toxins that's regularly discharged by municipal sewage systems.
Grand Rapids is the poster city for success. By year's end, the city will have eliminated 99.5 percent of the raw or partially treated sewage it once dumped into the Grand River, which feeds Lake Michigan.
The cost to the city just since 1991: $210 million to build a retention pond and update an antiquated system. And the city was attacking the problem long before that. The work was tough going. Miles of city streets had to be dug up to separate sewer and storm-water pipes to prevent spills into the river during rain storms and snow melts.
The Sierra report is a powerful reminder that elsewhere throughout the Great Lakes basin that kind of effort hasn't been made and needs to be.
The report details the amount of pollution discharged by 20 Canadian and American cities. It found that 24 billion gallons of untreated "effluent" gets dumped into the Great Lakes every year because of combined sewage overflows. That is enough to fill 100 Olympic-sized swimming pools every day, according to Elaine MacDonald, the scientist who did the study.
The sanitized term "effluent" describes everything from raw human feces and urine to toxic chemicals. Some of that sludge goes into lake tributaries partially treated.
Other stuff just gets dumped as is -- a horrifying prospect for down-river dwellers.
The report hands out letter grades to the surveyed communities: A "D" for Detroit, a "D-plus" for Cleveland, a "C-plus" for Grand Rapids -- the highest of the Michigan cities.
When it comes to the amount of sewage spilled, however, Grand Rapids' remarkable improvement should not be obscured by this undistinguished -- and unfair -- assessment. The city conscientiously undertook spill-stopping work when other communities dodged and delayed. Grand Rapids dumped more than 50 million gallons of mostly treated sewage in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available. But that accounts only for 4.5 percent of the total 1.1 billion dumped into the Grand River from all sources.
Lansing wasn't included in the Sierra report. But that city in 2005 released more than 1 billion gallons of mostly untreated sewage into the Grand. Lansing, to its credit, has put in place a plan to eliminate all sewage overflows by 2022.
Similar work remains to be done in Detroit, which spilled 16.3 billion gallons in 2005, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and Dearborn, which spilled 4.1 billion gallons -- to name only two.
Those communities could look to Grand Rapids. The city did the toughest work first. The remaining, small percentage of once-prolific sewage spills will cost as much as $150 million for the city to fix. Grand Rapids won't stop until the discharges do. That same resolve should flow throughout the Great Lakes basin.