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Great Lakes Article:

Great Lakes Need Basinwide Protection


Published July 5, 2002
Chicago Tribune

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.

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