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Great Lakes Article:

2004 could be Year of the Lakes
Friends of Great Lakes hope for preservation efforts next year.
By Corydon Ireland
Democrat and Chronicle

At an Albany news conference Tuesday, a coalition of state and national environmental groups said that 2004 will be the most important year for the Great Lakes since the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act.

Coming within the year is a fight in Congress over billions of dollars in funds for Great Lakes cleanup. One bill in the House of Representatives, the Great Lakes Restoration Financing Act of 2003 (H.R. 2720), is co-sponsored by Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-Clarence, Erie County. It calls for funding of up to $4 billion from 2004 through 2008. A Senate counterpart (S. 1398) would provide $6 billion over 10 years.

The federal funding would be modeled on the $8 billion allocated almost a decade ago to restore and protect the Florida Everglades.

A second major issue in 2004, the group said, is water diversion. By June, the eight Great Lakes state governors and two Canadian provincial officials are expected to sign Annex 2001, a major amendment to the 1985 Great Lakes Charter. It would spell out a mechanism for controlling the diversion of water from the Great Lakes. Public hearings on the proposed amendment could come as early as March.

"Itís not hyperbolic to say 2004 is a really important year," with major action possible on both water quality and water diversion initiatives, said Jeff Jones of the Albany-based Environmental Advocates of New York. Joining him were the Buffalo-based Great Lakes United, an international group focusing on public input, and the National Wildlife Federation, the largest U.S. conservation group, which has a Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The impetus for Annex 2001 came in 1998, when the Province of Ontario issued a permit (later withdrawn) that would have allowed the Nova Group, a Canadian business, to extract 60 million gallons of water a year for sale in Asia. The resulting uproar over bulk water removals led to a review of protections.

The prospect of massive diversions of Great Lakes water to a thirsty world market "was a wake up call for policymakers and citizens of all kinds," said Dave Higby, Great Lakes project director for Environmental Advocates of New York.

It was also a sign, he said, that three present protections against Great Lakes water diversions are not strong enough. One of them, the federal Water Resources Development Act of 1986, requires all eight U.S. Great Lakes governors to approve large exports of water.

Among the eight states, rules for diversion vary.

New York requires that all water withdrawals of more than 100,000 gallons per day over 30 days be registered.

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which identifies water as a commodity, was also "a major motivating factor" in the need for updated protections, said Higby. Before international trade pressures for fresh water pick up even more, he said, "we have to get our own house in order."

Noah Hall, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, said action in 2004 would help protect "a national treasure" that is also the regionís main engine of economic development. Sport fishing alone, he said, props up a business sector worth $7 billion a year.

Invasive species in the Great Lakes have cost U.S. industry $10 billion in the last decade, said Hall.

In addition, coastal habitat is disappearing, and 31 toxic hotspots on the U.S. side alone would cost at least $8 billion to clean up.

One of these so-called "areas of concern" is the Rochester Embayment, an area of polluted sediments comprising the last six miles of the Genesee River and an adjacent 35 square miles of Lake Ontario.

Under the Reynolds bill, the federal Environmental Protection Agency would appoint a special master who would direct the cleanup in each area.

The coalition of conservation groups will by March identify the top 10 Great Lakes restoration projects in New York that should be addressed first with new federal funding.

The Rochester-based Center for Environmental Information will be helping to name regional candidate projects.

Two likely ones are the Rochester Embayment and the watershed protecting Hemlock and Canadice lakes, which supply drinking water to Rochester.

The coalition estimated that among the eight Great Lakes states, New York might receive up to 20 percent of the funding.

Current U.S. restoration programs for the lakes - 148 federal and 51 state programs - are scattered, uncoordinated and "drastically and habitually underfunded," said Hall.

An April 2003 report by the General Accounting Offices said such programs are in disarray.

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