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Great Lakes Article:

Editorial: Great Lakes/A new and inviting users' guide
Star Tribune
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 binational.net/ourgreatlakes/ourgreatlakes.pdf.

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