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Awaiting A Presidential Call On The Great Lakes

Administration set to announce decision on restoration

December 9, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The Bush administration is expected to announce how much of the Great Lakes it wants to restore on Monday in Chicago.

ANN ARBOR – In a bid to convince President George Bush that a serious Great Lakes restoration program requires significant federal investment, the region’s leading scientists warned this week that Earth’s largest fresh water ecosystem is at the “tipping point” of “irreversible collapse.”

In a research paper made public here on December 8, 2005, the scientists diagnosed the Great Lakes as a patient with a failing immune system. The paper, Prescription For Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection and Restoration, found that extensive toxic contamination, invasive species, constant sewage dumping, overdevelopment in coastal areas, and other sources of environmental stress are coalescing to put “the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem in serious jeopardy.”

Without aggressive treatment, the paper said, the overall condition of the lakes will continue to worsen and the cost of care will escalate. What is needed, the scientists concluded, is a wide-ranging strategy to restore the basic biological strength of the Great Lakes and prevent future degradation.

“Protecting the remaining areas from further stress is significantly less costly than attempting restoration after damage has occurred,” the scientists said in their study. 

Scientific Findings
Based on decades of peer-reviewed research and backed by more than 40 leading scientists from the United States and Canada, the paper is the latest sign of support for a sweeping proposal to rehabilitate the health of the Great Lakes. The study is the most thorough and worrisome biological assessment of the Great Lakes published in years.

The paper comes as state and Congressional lawmakers consider a $20 billion multi-year strategy to clean up polluted waterways, rehabilitate shorelines and wetlands, permanently end sewage spills, and stem the spread of invasive species. The proposed strategy would also put hundreds of thousands of people to work fixing sewers, fund talented researchers to innovate new water cleaning technologies, speed urban revitalization in waterfront cities like Gary, Detroit, and Muskegon, and speed the region’s transition to the knowledge economy. 

Senior Bush Administration officials have made clear they do not support the full $20 billion plan. In an October 2005 report to the president, the special task force of cabinet heads and agency officials charged with overseeing the restoration planning process advised the president not to increase federal investment for Great Lakes programs.

The administration is expected to unveil the final restoration plan on December 12 in Chicago.

Presidential Interest
President Bush launched the current campaign to plan and implement the Great Lakes cleanup with an executive order in May 2004. A broad coalition of civic leaders helped to develop the plan, and have expressed frustration over the administration’s apparent reluctance to fully invest in it.

Steve Chester, the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, expressed his disappointment in a December 3 editorial, which appeared in the Grand Rapids Press.  The federal task force’s recommendation, he wrote, “demonstrates a disturbing lack of vision and has seriously undermined efforts to restore and protect the Great Lakes."

Mr. Chester added: “We are deeply disappointed that the task force would jeopardize this effort.”

Conservationists sent a similar message directly to President Bush. In a December 2 letter, a coalition of organizations – including the League of Ohio Sportsmen, the Wisconsin State Council of Trout Unlimited, and the Michigan chapter of the Izaak Walton League – urged the president to “show us you remain committed” to Great Lakes restoration.

“We are deeply disappointed with the recent report that suggests Great Lakes restoration can occur with no new funding,” the alliance of conservationists wrote. “By attempting to gut the restoration plan, this report turns its back on the Great Lakes.”

The region’s mayors, governors, and federal lawmakers also have urged the president to fully fund the restoration program. Indeed, there is widespread agreement across the Great Lakes that a major public works project focused on water resource restoration is essential to strengthen the economy, preserve cultural identity, and safeguard the globally unique environment in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Scientists Sound A Deep Concern
Great Lakes scientists are the latest group to join the broad-based, bipartisan effort to convince the president that restoration is a top Midwest priority. Dr. Alfred Beeton, the former director of the Great Lakes Environmental Laboratory, Dr. Don Scavia, from the University of Michigan, and Dr. Henry Regier, from the University of Toronto, are among the lead authors of the new scientific paper urging immediate and sustained action to prevent irreversible damage to the Great Lakes.

“The health-sustaining system of the Great Lakes is seriously weakened,” the paper states. “If not addressed with great urgency, the Great Lakes may experience further – and potentially irreversible – change.”

Scientists attribute the declining health and resiliency of the Great Lakes to six primary sources of stress: over fishing; storm water runoff and sewage spills that increase the levels of phosphorus and other nutrients; the release of toxic chemicals like mercury; erosion due to poorly planned land development; the ongoing introduction of exotic plants and animals that out compete native species for food; and, finally, dams, canals, and other engineering projects that alter natural water flows. 

“Certain areas of the Great Lakes are increasingly experiencing ecosystem breakdown, where intensifying levels of stress from a combination of sources have overwhelmed natural processes that normally stabilize and buffer the system from permanent change,” the paper states.

Examples of the environmental breakdown include falling oxygen levels in Lake Erie; algae blooms choking out native species from Green Bay to Saginaw Bay; zebra mussels and other foreign critters dramatically disrupting the food web; and the declining size, quality, and number of game fish like yellow perch.

The solution, scientists say, is a comprehensive public works project focused on restoring the overall health of the Great Lakes and strengthening its immune system. The scientists recommend steps that are comprehensive and do not narrowly try to control each individual sources of stress.

The four-step prescription for the Great Lakes advocated by the scientists calls for extensive restoration of critical natural features such as wetlands; modern policies and programs to eliminate pollution, nonnative species, and other threats; and a strong commitment to safeguard the healthy parts of the Great Lakes from further degradation.

The proposed Great Lakes restoration plan under consideration by President Bush lays out a similar strategy in much greater detail. It calls for public investment from local, state, and the federal government.

“The Great Lakes policymaking and management community has a choice in how to move forward,” the scientists said in their new paper. “It can treat each symptom, or it can treat the disease.”

Andy Guy, who writes extensively about the Great Lakes and the global economy, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes Project and reports on Smart Growth from the Institute’s Grand Rapids office. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org

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