Great Lakes invaluable, irreplaceable

Advocates for the Great Lakes have been buoyed by a string of successes in the past year. Among them:

  • the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact was signed into U.S. law and a parallel agreement with two Canadian provinces also was signed;
  • President Barack Obama appointed the nation’s first Great Lakes director; and
  • members of Congress have committed almost $2.5 billion to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

Another hopeful sign came when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon announced in June 2009 that the two countries intend to renegotiate the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which was signed in 1972 and last updated in 1987. Experts say that it needs additional updating to address new threats to the health of the Great Lakes.

These victories do not mean people should become lax in supporting initiatives that benefit these globally significant Lakes, says Andy Buchsbaum, director of the Great Lakes Office of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), a 25-year Charles Stewart Mott Foundation grantee. [Since 1984 Mott has made 28 grants to NWF, totaling $3.9 million, for its work to protect and restore the Great Lakes.]

Great Lakes

Photo: Lloyd DeGrane.

Instead, he says, advocates need to build on the momentum already under way. Still to be decided, for example, are details relating to water conservation efforts called for under the Great Lakes Compact (the shortened name for the federal agreement). And it could be years before all conservation provisions are fully implemented.

“When the Great Lakes Compact was signed, it was a historic moment for the region and the planet,” Buchsbaum said.

“This Compact raised the bar for everybody. It showed that even though there were different controversial issues in every state, a group of people could still work together to get far-reaching and powerful results for the entire Great Lakes Basin.”

The Compact — a legally binding water management plan between the eight Great Lakes states — was signed into federal law in October 2008 and became effective in December.

With limited exceptions, the Compact and the parallel international agreement with the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec prohibit the diversion of water out of the Great Lakes Basin. They also require water conservation plans with policies and practices that contain specificity from all signers. Those applying for exceptions must adhere to strict standards and go through a formal decisionmaking process, something lacking in previous laws and policies.

Recognizing the Lakes’ value

The five Great Lakes — Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario and Superior — contain one-fifth of the world’s surface freshwater, making it the planet’s largest single source. They also account for 95 percent of the U.S.’s surface freshwater, and provide drinking water for 40 million U.S. and Canadian residents.

“The Great Lakes are invaluable and irreplaceable,” said Joel Brammeier, acting president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. (Since 1982, Mott has provided 18 grants to the alliance, totaling $1.5 million.)

The Lakes — located in the industrial heartland of North America — contribute substantially to the national economies of both the U.S. and Canada, according to a March 2008 report released by the Brookings Institution. The research shows that the Lakes generate billions of dollars in annual revenue for the region from manufacturing, maritime transportation, agriculture, commercial fishing, tourism, and recreation such as boating and fishing.

Great LakesAs much as they are recognized for their economic and environmental importance, the Lakes also are valued for their sheer beauty. They contain 10,000 miles of coastline and 20,000 islands. They are bordered by natural landscapes such as sand dunes, wetlands, prairies, savannas and forests.

“They are on par with the Rocky Mountains. In that same sense, we need to preserve and restore them just because they are there,” Brammeier said.

“We’re starting to see a national appreciation of the Great Lakes in the form of precedent-setting restoration commitments from Washington. We’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

Although the Compact promotes water conservation within the basin, the Lakes — and the people, animals and wildlife habitat that depend upon them — still face threats from several sources, including non-native invasive species; sewage overflows; toxic substances from industrial, municipal and household sources; emerging contaminants such as pharmaceutical byproducts; and agricultural and urban runoff. These have resulted in high concentrations of toxins in fish; and endangered ecosystems for wildlife, says Sam Passmore, Mott’s Environment Program Director.

When a U.S. presidential executive order named the Great Lakes “a national treasure” in 2004, the designation added strength to an already-in-motion drive to protect and restore them, says Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of NWF, which is headquartered in Reston, Virginia.

But much of today’s increased media interest in Lakes’ issues is also partly because two of the highest-ranking public figures in the nation — President Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel — have close ties to the Midwest. Before moving to their White House offices, the Chicago residents each lived close enough to Lake Michigan to swim in its water and stroll on its shore, Schweiger says.

Things You Can Do to Help Protect the Great Lakes:

  • Properly dispose of oil, gas, chemicals, electronic equipment and unused medicines.
    Tip: Unused medicines should be wrapped and placed in the trash — NOT flushed.
  • Shut off water while brushing teeth, take shorter showers and consider low-flow bathroom fixtures.
    Tip: The Energystar website provides great information on appliances that reduce water use.
  • Protect habitat for fish, birds and plants by following best practices for shoreline management.
    Tip: Replacing hard sea walls with “softer” materials can enhance the value of your property.
  • Participate in local stream, river and lake clean-up activities in your community.
    Tip: Protect drinking water supplies by not dumping chemicals or debris in storm water drains.
  • Hard surfaces — impervious to water — allow sediment and chemicals to enter the Great Lakes through runoff.
    Tip: Use a broom, not a hose to sweep driveways and walkways.
  • Plants absorb carbon dioxide, help prevent soil erosion, and provide wildlife habitat.
    Tip: Preserve and plant native trees, bushes and perennial plants.
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle plastics, paper, metal, cardboard and any other materials possible.
    Tip: Reuse stores with “gently used” goods are a great source for cottage furniture.

Source: Michigan Sea Grant.

“They both understand that the Great Lakes are the most important asset the region has,” he said.

“They also know the negative impacts of invasive species, declining water levels and climate change — and they want to address these issues.”

In September 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama promised, if elected, to create a $5 billion Great Lakes fund within the next decade. As newly sworn-in president, Obama took a step toward fulfilling that promise, Schweiger says, when in February 2009 he committed $475 million in additional dollars in his proposed 2010 federal budget for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. [In late September, the Senate passed legislation for $400 million while the House approved the full $475 million in June. The exact amount will be determined in a House-Senate conference committee.]

An additional $2 billion was allocated from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for projects in the region that contribute to economic development as well as restoration and protection of the Lakes, but most people don’t include this stimulus money as partial fulfillment of Obama’s $5 billion pledge.

When the president appointed a Great Lakes director in June 2009, Schweiger says, he again showed his commitment to ensuring the Lakes’ health for future generations. Cameron Davis, former president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, is now senior adviser on the Great Lakes at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and coordinates efforts among about a dozen federal agencies working on Great Lakes projects.

Binational stewardship

Within the past few years, the Great Lakes region has been increasingly identified by elected officials, researchers and community leaders as the nation’s “North Coast” because of its thousands of miles of shoreline. But the Lakes have been long valued by the U.S. and Canada, evidenced by the Boundary Waters Treaty that was crafted a century ago to resolve disputes, and jointly manage shared international waters, including the Great Lakes.

When President William H. Taft signed the treaty in 1909, he could not have known that 100 years later environmentalists and national leaders would point to it as one of the world’s first environmental agreements.

In June 2009, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Canada’s Cannon used the 100-year anniversary celebration of the treaty’s signing to announce that the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement would be updated.

Great Lakes“We have to update it to reflect new knowledge, new technology and, unfortunately, new threats,” Clinton said.

While this agreement aims to address water quality issues, the Compact addresses the quantity of water in the Lakes. In fact, it was a 1998 request from a private company to export millions of gallons of Lake Superior water annually to Asia that awakened Great Lakes residents and governments to the need for regional policy that would prohibit moving large quantities of water out of the Great Lakes Basin.

“We realized back then that we lacked the ability to protect the water in the basin, which lit a fire under everybody to do something,” said NWF’s Buchsbaum.

But the work of the leaders of the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces didn’t end with the signing of the Compact and its parallel Canadian agreement, which took seven years of negotiations and votes, Buchsbaum says. The Compact mandates signers to develop water conservation policies and efficiency programs within two years. He says that it could take two to 10 years until all the conservation provisions are fully implemented in each state and province.

In the U.S., the process will vary from state to state, with each state creating and refining its laws and regulatory system so the Compact can be effective in different contexts, Buchsbaum said.

Challenges for future

Those following the Compact’s implementation predict an uphill climb for hammering out details related to water conservation efforts within the Great Lakes Basin, says Derek Stack, executive director of Great Lakes United (GLU).

He says that even though more than 10 million Canadians get their drinking water from the Lakes, a recent survey conducted in the Ontario and Quebec provinces showed that almost one-third of residents did not know where their drinking water came from.

“We have to reconnect people back to their watershed,” Stack said.

Great Lakes“It’s much easier to say to outsiders, ‘You can’t have our water’ than it is to say to insiders, ‘We need limits. We need water restrictions.’”

Stack cites research reported by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that shows Americans and Canadians living in the Great Lakes region are the planet’s most wasteful water users. They use three times as much water as people in Germany and six times as much as residents of the United Kingdom.

“We use more water than is currently sustainable,” Stack said.

“By drawing less water, and using the water we do withdraw more wisely, we lighten the stresses that lead to water-quality problems, relieve the burden on aging wastewater infrastructure, and quell greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the energy used to pump and treat water.”

GLU is a broad-based international coalition with Canadian offices in Ottawa and Montreal and a U.S. office in Buffalo, New York. It has received 22 Mott grants since 1987 totaling $1.8 million.

“I am passionate about protecting the Great Lakes,” Stack said.

“Overall, we have seen some real gains in the past few years. Now the priority for everybody doing this work — in the States and Canada — is to keep the Great Lakes on the public map so our efforts continue to translate into action that restores and protects these fragile waters.”

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