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Great Lakes Are A Resource At Risk
Beacon Journal
Posted on 09/29/2002

Erie and other Great Lakes were recovering steadily. Then, dangerous predators arrived, and a new crisis, too

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 among lakes.

The problem is much larger than $385 million, but such proposals move in the right direction. The question is: Will the action come fast enough?

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