Great Lakes Are A Resource At Risk
Posted on 09/29/2002
Erie and other Great Lakes were recovering
steadily. Then, dangerous predators arrived, and a new
Reports of the renewed health
of the Great Lakes have been exaggerated. With apologies
to Mark Twain, science is showing us that despite remarkable
progress, the Great Lakes are far from thriving. They
remain seriously polluted and are under attack by invading
predators. Most important to this region, Lake Erie may
be dying again. While this news should concern us all,
smart and swift action will achieve more than hand-wringing.
Rumblings that Lake Erie was
slipping backward after nearly three decades of progress
began this past summer, when scientists detected a ``dead
zone'' in the middle of the shallowest of the Great Lakes.
The disappearance of oxygen
in the deepest, central portion of Lake Erie is caused
by too much algae growing in a phosphorus-rich environment.
Eventually, rotting algae rob the water of oxygen. Plants
and animals that depend on oxygen in the water die.
The Clean Water Act reduced
phosphorus levels. The lake rebounded. Now, however, animals
no larger than a fingernail are sending progress in reverse.
It would seem indifference
is the biggest threat to the continued improvement of
the world's largest source of fresh water, an assessment
delivered earlier this month by the International Joint
Commission, the U.S.-Canadian group that regulates the
health and use of the Great Lakes. Its 11th annual report
declared the Great Lakes cleanup practically at a standstill.
Speeding the process requires focus and money. There has
been too little of either up to now.
There is no question the Great
Lakes are healthier than they were 30 years ago. Nonetheless,
the commission finds at the current rate of progress,
it will take many generations before people can safely
drink, swim or eat fish from these lakes. Rightly, the
commission finds those prospects unacceptable.
While there are many threats
to the Great Lakes, two deserve the most attention: Toxic
sediment that is slowly spreading through the food chain,
and the invasion of alien species. Lake Erie's dead zone
is likely the work of the tiny quagga mussel, which lives
in deep water and excretes phosphorous.
The quagga and more than 150
other non-native creatures, from fish to water fleas,
hitchhiked into the Great Lakes in the ballast of ocean-going
vessels. Although ballast discharge is now illegal, the
damage is done.
These pests cause an estimated
$137 billion in economic damage each year, costs borne
largely by state and local governments. A strong federal
response is needed.
In April, the Bush administration
announced its Great Lakes Strategy 2002, which addressed
the issue of alien species and sediment cleanup. However,
the initiative authorized no money. Perhaps the commission's
report will change that.
The irony is rich. The Great
Lakes is a huge laboratory that has helped other areas
of the country such as the Mississippi River basin and
the Chesapeake Bay. Yet progress stalls here.
A coalition of Great Lakes
senators, including George Voinovich and Mike DeWine,
are pushing a bill to address the alien species threat.
It would, if fully funded, devote more than $385 million
over five years toward regional and federal responses
to new invasions and prevent the migration of species
The problem is much larger
than $385 million, but such proposals move in the right
direction. The question is: Will the action come fast