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Great Lakes Article:

The state of the lakes: Task force report a good starting point for action

01/28/2002


Legislative reports are frequently destined for the dust bin almost as soon as they roll off the presses. That fate shouldn't befall the Great Lakes Conservation Task Force report issued last week. Culled from broad citizen input, the 81-page volume provides a valuable starting point for legislative action, and offers a kind of state-of-the-lakes assessment that Michigan should periodically undertake.

Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow, R-Port Huron, has promised to turn each of the reports 66 recommendations into law. Mr. DeGrow's ambition may be impractical, given that he and many other senators have less than a year left in the Legislature -- an election year at that. But his get-it-done spirit is welcome. The Great Lakes are signature natural resources for the state. They deserve careful attention and conscientious stewardship.

Sen. Kenneth Sikkema, R-Grandville, chaired the task force, which consisted of himself and seven other senators. They held eight public hearings around the state. Addressing the merits of each of the group's final recommendations would be impossible. Those who want to read the full report can find it at www.senate.state.mi.us/gop/.

A few of the proposals that merit serious debate:

-- Write comprehensive laws to regulate groundwater withdrawals. A water bottling plant being built by the Perrier Group in Mecosta County pointed up holes in Michigan's groundwater laws. High capacity wells pose a potential threat to surrounding water sources and wildlife, not to mention other wells. Enacting laws to govern such withdrawals should be a top priority.

-- Stop billions of gallons of raw sewage from flowing into rivers and lakes. The task force calls for more money for a revolving loan fund to help tackle the problem, which mainly is in Southeast Michigan. That's fine, when the money can be found. But lawmakers should recognize that communities like Grand Rapids have already spent millions of their own dollars on reducing or stopping sewage spills. Other communities should not get a free ride when Grand Rapids has already paid its own freight.

-- Monitor Great Lakes beaches statewide for bacteria. Fewer than half of the state's lakeshore counties check lake water weekly for E. coli and other bacteria.

In addition, the task force calls for reduction in airborne toxins, measures to fend off ocean fish and other non-native species invading the lakes and full staffing at the state's environmental protection efforts. One of the report's conclusions that needs re-examining is a call for a moratorium on more directional drilling for oil under the Great Lakes. Studies have concluded that directional drilling -- where shoreline wells drill beneath the lakes at an angle -- poses little risk to the lakes. The state would be well served by following science in this regard.

The report's many proposals will inevitably run up against the reality of tough economic times and the state's shrinking revenues. That's all the more reason to make sure it doesn't end up on whatever basement shelf the Legislature reserves for task force reports. Upgrading Great Lakes protections should be viewed as a multi-year effort. Some of the report's recommendations can and should be accomplished immediately. Others ought to be delayed until the state emerges from recession.

In all this, Mr. Sikkema and his task force deserve credit for making the first comprehensive assessment of the Great Lakes in years. No natural feature of Michigan is as important to its citizens. Lawmakers should take heed -- and take action.

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