Editorial: Great Lakes/A new and inviting
Published June 6, 2005
Too often, government reports on environmental subjects
are technical, turgid and long. A recent binational update
on the health of the Great Lakes is a happy exception.
"Our Great Lakes," a collaboration of the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada,
takes a plain-language approach to a complex set of issues,
and frames these with a lake-loving readership's key concerns
foremost in mind:
Is the water healthy to drink? Are the fish safe to eat?
And, equally important from our point of view: What can
an ordinary citizen do to help the lakes continue their
recovery from a more polluted past?
Leading up to that last point, the report brings clarity
to the unique circumstances underlying the fragile predicament
of the Great Lakes. Vast as they are -- containing one-fifth
of the world's fresh surface water -- they drain a relatively
small basin, whose boundaries are often within a few dozen
miles of the shoreline.
Because that basin is heavily populated -- 10 percent
of all Americans live within it, and 30 percent of Canadians
-- pollution sources are more highly concentrated than
in more normal geography. Also, annual rainfall in the
basin amounts to less than 1 percent of the lakes' water
volume; this means that pollutants arrive in the lakes
fairly undiluted, and persist for a long time.
Water quality in the lakes has improved in recent decades,
thanks to U.S. and Canadian crackdowns on industrial pollution.
But continuing problems with poor sewage systems sometimes
overwhelm drinking-water treatment systems, and often
make certain beaches unhealthy for swimming.
Urban runoff adds pesticides, fertilizers and petroleum
products. Improper (and often illegal) disposal of household
wastes contributes paint sludges and chemical toxins.
Long-lived industrial contaminants, such as mercury and
other heavy metals, mean that anglers must still consult
local advisories as to the safety of eating their catch.
Overall, the greatest threat to the health of the lakes'
ecosystems is the continuing assault of alien, noxious
species that wipe out native plants, fish and other wildlife.
More than 160 of these invaders have been counted; the
damage is incalculable. Alas, the main source of this
onslaught -- discharged ballast water from foreign ports
-- remains essentially uncontrolled despite readily available
and affordable remedies.
But here is one opportunity for individuals to avoid
making a bad situation even worse, by cleaning their boats
of potential invaders, and by forgoing the temptation
to toss unused bait in the water, or to flush unwanted
aquarium critters down the toilet.
Many more contributions are available to the Great Lakes'
visitors and neighbors alike, from controlling home runoff
to fixing faulty septic systems to buying environment-friendly
products. For details, spend a little time with this handsomely
illustrated, 25-page booklet, available on the Web at