New strategy for water quality
Pay some now for prevention or a whole lot more later for cleanup
By John Flesher
The Associated Press
Published December 28, 2006
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - About five years before zebra mussels launched their invasion of the Great Lakes in the mid-1980s, Canadian researchers warned that it was coming.
But neither Canada nor the United States took steps to stop the tiny mollusk from hitchhiking to the lakes from Europe inside ballast tanks of oceangoing freighters. Now, controlling the pest costs taxpayers hundreds of millions a year.
"We're paying many times the price we would have had to pay if we'd taken a preventive approach," says Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
"The entire history of the Great Lakes is like that - suspecting a threat but not heeding the warning signs."
As both countries ponder the first significant update of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in almost two decades, a coalition of environmentalist groups has developed a wide-ranging set of proposed improvements.
Among them: adding to the agreement's list of bedrock principles the "precautionary approach," or trying to head off potential threats before they materialize instead of waiting to clean up the mess afterward.
"It means paying attention to scientific research and listening to the early warning bells," says Davis, whose group crafted the wish list with Great Lakes United, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and the Biodiversity Project. Numerous other organizations have endorsed it, he says.
Their 65-page paper is among many recommendations offered to an executive committee of U.S. and Canadian officials since it began a review of the water quality agreement last year to decide whether changes are needed.
Climate change is among the emerging dangers, the report says, with the potential to cause more precipitation and heavier storms even as it drives water levels lower by boosting temperatures and evaporation. Possible consequences include more pollution from runoff, sewer overflows, wetlands shrinkage and wildlife habitat loss.
The report calls for a board of experts to keep track of developments in global warming research and recommend ways to minimize the damage by acting early.
Some business interests say the precautionary principle - a fixture in many international declarations and treaties on the environment - can be acceptable. The key is to base preventive rules on good science and make them proportionate to the risk involved, the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries says.
The water quality agreement is "a vision document," the group's president, George Kuper, says. "What I'm anxious for is that people not take that vision to outrageous extremes," such as demanding that industry prove it won't put any toxins in the water instead of showing the amounts won't be harmful.
"There is not a thing in this world that is risk-free," Kuper says. "The question is how to balance the risk against the reward."