Our Voice: Stop studying Great Lakes woes and use grants to start addressing problems

By Bay City Times staff
February 07, 2010, 5:58AM

Though the deadline for submissions has passed, we offer this idea: The EPA should require that money any group receives be spent directly on action.

We’re not saying that environmental studies and data collection aren’t important or that they shouldn’t continue. But federal restoration money, especially this first wave of it, should be applied to actual work.

The Great Lakes are a precious and irreplaceable natural resource, and they are begging for action.

Big-city sewage overflows have taken their toll, as have the at least 185 non-native species that have been dumped in the water via cargo ships’ ballast tanks and arrived with other manmade help.

It’s estimated that the prolific zebra mussels alone have caused an estimated $5 billion in damage to the Great Lakes.

On Lake Erie, for instance, the Monroe Power Plant had to shell out more than $500,000 to clear its pipes and an additional $50 million for repairs and pipe replacement all because of the thumbnail-sized mussels.

With no natural predators to hunt them, other exotic species are pushing out native fish.

A couple years back, a University of Notre Dame report said invasive species were costing our regional economy $200 million a year, and that’s not even taking into consideration the Asian carp, which is knocking at the Great Lakes door via the Illinois River.

Should the huge carp find a home in the Great Lakes, it could decimate the region’s $4 billion fishing industry.

In addition to these threats, we’ve seen the effects of pollution in our back yard. The muck from dead algae has made a mess of our beaches, and researchers are thinking the culprit may be a dead zone deep in the Saginaw Bay.  

Lake Erie already has such zones, in which the oxygen is used up faster than it can be replaced.

For the past few years scientists have been warning that our lakes, which represent 90 percent of the country’s fresh water supply, are nearing the “tipping point.”

That’s the point at which, regardless of studies or even intervention, they will not be able to come back from the abuse humans have heaped on them over the years.

Many of the problems are well-documented and have been discussed ad nauseum, without much headway.

The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy that former President Bush set up while running for re-election in 2004, upgrading wastewater and sewage treatment systems, restoring wetlands and wildlife habitat, cleaning up toxic sediments and battling the influx of exotic species.

Of course, little money wound up attached to the recommendations.

President Obama, too, made the Great Lakes a priority in his 2008 election campaign. He promised that $5 billion would be put in a trust fund designated for restoration efforts as a down payment on what experts have said could cost more than $20 billion.

The first big installment of those funds will soon be in the hands of people who have the power to make a real difference. 

It’s  not just the “tipping point” they need to be mindful of. Already, 2011’s appropriation for Great Lakes funding is down 36 percent from this year’s $475 million. Great Lakes advocates say they will lobby Congress to pump up Obama’s $300 million request, but with the nation’s economy still teetering on the edge, it’s hard to say how successful they will be.

That’s why we want to see action. Not only is it desperately warranted, but showing progress will speak louder than studies to those folks who foolishly think addressing the Great Lakes’ troubles can be back-burnered until we see better economic times.