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Great Lakes Article:

States work on plan to make lakes great
John C. Kuehner
Ohio Plain Dealer

Everglades envy is gripping leaders across the Great Lakes region.

It's the green of the Everglade that afflicts them with jealousy. Not the green of lush plant life, but the green of cash - as in $8 billion.

That's how much money the federal government will spend in an ambitious 30-year plan to restore the thousands of square miles of ecologically crucial but degraded Florida swamp.

Leaders in this region want that kind of money to restore the Great Lakes.

"Everyone took notice of what Florida got," said Chris Jones, who heads the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. "Even in Washington, that's a lot of money."

But before the region can get Everglades kind of money, it needs a plan.

So for more than a year, the governors of the eight Great Lakes states have been putting one together, and representatives met here last week to discuss ways to build partnerships to restore the lakes. Next month, they will release a report.

The report will outline their natural-resource-enhancement goals for the Great Lakes.

The priorities probably will focus on these issues:

Cleanup of toxic sediments and contaminated areas. The Great Lakes area has 42 highly polluted spots, including four in Ohio: the Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Black and Maumee rivers. Those tainted sediments, the residues of almost a century of industrialization, can mix back into the water if disturbed. Also, mussels and other bottom-dwellers absorb the pollutants and pass them on to creatures that eat them.

Control of non-native species - fish, bugs and plants that typically arrive in seagoing ships, then spread to choke out native life, disrupt the food chain and throw the ecosystem into chaos.

Laws, regulations and treaties governing the removal of water from the Great Lakes for use outside the region.

Keeping sewage and untreated wastes out of the water. Sewage treatment plants already must meet tight standards on their direct discharges. But the sewers that feed to them overflow, and remedying that problem is a multibillion-dollar challenge the region is beginning to address.

Restoring and protecting wetlands and coastal habitats. Besides giving lake-region creatures and migratory birds a place to live and hide, wetlands also filter out sediments, fertilizers and other taints that otherwise flow into the lakes. Yet many of them have been drained or degraded.

Controlling stormwater runoff. Rushing rainwater washes oil and other pollutants off parking lots, roads and roofs, and many argue that such slop should be treated at sewage plants or prevented from entering the lakes.

Non-environmental and economic issues, such as transportation and tourism on the Great Lakes.

Throughout the last three decades of environmental awareness, billions of dollars have been spent on curbing the dumping of pollution from factories and other "point sources" into the lakes and the waterways that feed them. That has improved the water's chemistry and life dramatically, but the remaining problems are more vexing.

Substantial restoration could mean sweeping changes to agricultural practice, tremendous effort to restore and re-create the wetlands and swamps that once ringed the lakes and perhaps an unprecedented effort to reduce "nonpoint" pollution running off the land instead of pouring out of pipes.

All of it would cost money - a lot of it.

"The scale of something like this has not been attempted before in the Great Lakes region," said Mike Donahue, who heads the Great Lakes Commission, an agency that represents the eight Great Lakes states and two provinces of Canada.

Such a plan has the backing of the region's representatives in Washington.

In fact, the Great Lakes congressional delegation gave the governors a nudge to put together the priority list in a letter sent in March 2001.

Florida had organized, prepared and identified specific goals, and it still took more than a decade to get the funding. Congress signed off on the colossal undertaking about two years ago.

In the years after World War II, the federal government and Florida spent vast sums altering the Everglades.

Up went dams and dikes to drain some of the mammoth marsh and protect development around it from flooding. Drinking-water treatment plants pulled water from the surface and underground rivers that feed the swamp to supply growing communities. Levees and pumps steered hundreds of millions of gallons of water a year into the sea to make way for sugar-cane plantations and other agriculture.

Consequently, the drying, dying, polluted Everglades swamp shrank to half of its 8 million acres, causing a groundwater-depletion crisis, the threat of extinction for scores of plant and wildlife species and an outcry from preservationists.

The plan now is to remove many of the artificial barriers, restore natural water flow and use reservoirs to recapture water that had been sent out to sea and recirculate it through the marshes. This, advocates hope, will bring life back.

It took years and some watering down to appease agricultural interests, but the restoration idea prevailed. One of the strong proponents was Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

In the Great Lakes, the challenges are complicated by the potentially conflicting interests of eight states and Canada. Plus, it's more difficult to put responsibility on the federal government because, unlike the Everglades, it did not directly mandate and pay for projects that caused most of the degradation.

So it made sense that Washington sought the governors' support and wants them to organize and unify now.

"We really have not gotten our fair share of the federal money, and one of the reasons is, we have not had a strategy, we have not had goals," said Sen. Mike DeWine, one of 19 elected officials who signed the letter. "You don't get anything unless you know what you want."

The idea is that the governors' priority list will lead to congressional funding next year for a study, which the EPA's Jones said might be done by 2005.

That plan could then prompt Congress to provide funding for restoration projects.

"It's going to take something that big to get the changes we want," said Jeffrey Busch, who heads the Ohio Lake Erie Commission, a state agency. "Not to decrease the importance of the Everglades, but you can make a bigger case for the national, and international, importance of the Great Lakes."

The General Accounting Office is now tallying up how much money the federal government has spent over the last five years to improve the Great Lakes. When it's done in February, the GAO report will be compared with the governors' priority list to find the funding gaps.

If there are not enough challenges, here's another problem: Great Lakes leaders are not the only ones with Everglades envy.

The $8 billion has set off a scramble across the country to come up with restoration plans. Competition includes coastal Louisiana, San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound.

The Great Lakes region enjoys fairly strong political clout in Washington: 16 senators and 134 representatives. But come January, the region will lose nine seats to the water-starved South and West. But the 125 who remain are more than a quarter of the House.

"If we exercise the political clout, we can, over time, get things done," DeWine said. "The reality is we need all of us to wake up and understand that the country as a whole needs to make more of an investment in our future. We need to be in there with our plan. Unless you have a plan, you don't get it."

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