Outlook murky as U.S., Canada work out pact on Great Lakes
Environmental, industry groups are lobbying to strike balance
By John Flesher
The Associated Press
Published in The Enquirer (OH) on December 28, 2006
It's been more than three decades since Canada and the United States first approved the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. While the lakes and their major tributaries are less dirty today than when the agreement was signed in 1972, the waters face threats that were barely visible then. Now the two countries are considering whether to update and strengthen the accord. In a two-day series, the Associated Press examines the agreement's successes and shortcomings.
When Canada and the United States approved the first version of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972, the running joke in Cleveland was that anyone unlucky enough to fall into the Cuyahoga River would decay rather than drown.
The Cuyahoga, which meanders through the city before reaching Lake Erie, helped inspire the cleanup initiative by literally catching fire three years earlier. The lower end of the 112-mile-long waterway was a foul brew of oil, sludge, sewage and chemicals. It made embarrassing worldwide headlines when its surface burned for about 30 minutes.
Today the river is being nursed back to health under a plan developed through the water quality agreement. Pollution levels have fallen. Nearly 70 fish species have been detected in areas once considered virtually lifeless. Just this year, bald eagle nests were spotted in the area. But much remains to be done.
"Maybe one day we'll actually be able to swim within the harbor," says Ed Hauser, an environmental activist who launches his kayaks at Whiskey Island, a park at the river mouth. "I'll get my feet wet, but I sure don't want to fall in there."
Like many across the Great Lakes region, Hauser sees the water quality agreement - which commits the two countries to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity" of the world's biggest surface freshwater system - as a mission only partly accomplished. The U.S. and Canadian governments are considering whether to update and strengthen the accord, which hasn't undergone a significant revision since 1987.
While the lakes and their major tributaries are less dirty than four decades ago, states continue warning children and women of childbearing age to limit fish consumption because of lingering toxicity. Algae overgrowth and the resulting oxygen-starved "dead zone" in Lake Erie, all but eliminated by the early 1980s, are returning.
And the waters face threats that were barely visible on the radar screen when the agreement initially was signed, such as the exotic species invasion, climate change and shoreline development.
A decision on revising the agreement probably won't come until 2008, despite increasingly urgent warnings from scientists and advocacy groups that the lakes are in peril.
Many supporters say the agreement has lost clout over the past couple of decades and risks becoming irrelevant without significant changes.
That would be a tremendous setback, they say. While there's no shortage of programs aimed at cleaning up the Great Lakes - a 2003 U.S. Government Accountability Office report identified 140 on the federal level alone - the water quality agreement is crucial because it obligates the two countries to work toward the same goals. Although not legally binding, it has moral influence.
"It's really our insurance policy that Canada and the U.S. will continue to treat the Great Lakes as a joint responsibility," says Cameron Davis, executive director of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes. "There is nothing else that comes close to providing that incentive."
The Council of Great Lakes Industries, which represents the likes of Dow Chemical Co., the American Forest and Paper Association and electric utilities, fears the review will bring a more aggressive water quality agreement spawning costly, cumbersome regulations.
The International Joint Commission, an independent agency that advises both countries on Great Lakes issues, seemingly wants the agreement to "address everybody's ills. I think that's unrealistic," says George Kuper, the council's president.
He said it's uncertain to what extent the agreement can be credited with water quality improvements of the past several decades.
"It's already created a bureaucracy and a governance nightmare that is very difficult to maneuver around, and ... an atmosphere of inconsistency that may explain why it's so difficult to attract capital here."