Great Lakes Need Basinwide Protection
Published July 5, 2002
Gray and menacing
as the North Sea in winter, Lake Michigan in summer can
seem as beguiling and gentle (though not nearly so warm)
as a Caribbean cove. Whichever seasonal face it offers
us though, the lake seems immense and invincible, a piece
of nature no mortal could hope to tame much less damage.
Think again. After decades of sustained assault by man--and
man-made vehicles of destruction, mostly pollutants--there
are signs Lake Michigan and its sister Great Lakes are
in increasing trouble. Bacteria from sewage overflows
led to 599 beach closings in Lake Michigan last year,
a record number. As fishing grounds the Great Lakes are
improving, but a lot of the catch is still not safe to
eat. Foreign aquatic species like zebra mussels and alewives
are proliferating a lot faster than native fish.
The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency recently unveiled the Great Lakes Strategy
2002. The plan advances a sweeping vision for protecting
the Great Lakes and restoring those areas that have been
damaged or even destroyed.
That the Bush administration--no great champion of the
environment so far--should put forth such an ambitious
plan is one indication of the importance of the Great
Lakes and the extent of their deterioration.
What was missing from the EPA pitch was money to pay for
it. To begin the restoration work will cost an estimated
$15 billion, almost double the cost of a similar effort
to undo the damage to the Everglades in Florida.
Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic congressional candidate in
the 5th District, is proposing the creation of a Great
Lakes Trust, funded by the federal government and the
surrounding eight states, to begin the huge task of fixing
some of the environmental damage. It's a sound proposal.
That's a large sum, $15 billion. But consider that 95
percent of the surface fresh water in the U.S. is in the
Great Lakes, and that the region is one of the great manufacturing
and economic hubs of the world. And though the Great Lakes
don't have any Great Blue Herons or Roseate Spoonbills,
their ecological and economic importance easily matches
or surpasses that of the Everglades.
The approximately $8 billion trust to restore the Everglades--created
during the Clinton administration and funded equally by
the federal government and Florida--is what Emanuel is
using as the template for the Great Lakes Trust.
It's too early to say how much this plan would cost Illinois.
But if the Everglade model is followed, the restoration
effort would go on for 20 years and its $15 billion tab
would be shared equally by the federal government and
states that surround the Great Lakes. It's possible that
Canada and its lake provinces could be recruited to participate
in this binational project.
Though President Bush doesn't have a brother in office
in the Great Lakes area, the combined political clout
of states like Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New
York ought to be enough to push the ecological health
of the region to the front burner for federal funding.
The goals of the EPA's Great Lakes Strategy are tremendously
ambitious: protect drinking water, create a healthy environment
for people and wildlife, provide clean beaches and fish
that are safe to eat. It is a project that will take decades
to complete. Emanuel has a sound proposal to get it started.