The Great Lakes: Awash in Policies

By Adler, Tina | Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2005 | Go to article overview

The Great Lakes: Awash in Policies

Adler, Tina, Environmental Health Perspectives

When a national resource has 8,300 miles of shoreline and 6 quadrillion gallons of fresh water--making it the largest surface freshwater system on Earth--it's bound to attract some attention. Now surround that resource with eight states, two Canadian provinces, and multiple tribal lands, and you've got a political hot spot known as the Great Lakes basin. Add to this picture vast numbers of individuals and industries relying on the water to serve as their fishing--and dumping--grounds as well as a source of drinking water, transportation, recreation, and power, and it's no wonder the U.S. government alone has about 140 programs devoted to the care and maintenance of the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes basin has suffered from severe pollution problems, one of the most dramatic being recurring fires on one of Lake Erie's arteries, the Cuyahoga River. The fires began in 1936, when a spark from a blowtorch ignited waste oil floating on the river. Recurrent fires continued until the early 1970s, when policy makers and others decided to crack down on pollution.

Nowadays, the fires are history and the lakes are cleaner. But the Great Lakes remain plagued by mercury contamination, legal and illegal dumping of industrial chemicals, burgeoning populations of invasive species, and dwindling food supplies and habitat for native creatures. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) National Coastal Condition Report II, released in January 2005, ranked the health of the lakes' coastal waters between poor and fair, based on the deterioration of coastal wetlands, the poor condition of the lake bottoms, low levels of dissolved oxygen, and sediment contamination.

After 30 years of new policies, regulations, procedures, guidelines, agreements, and directives aimed at helping the lakes, old problems persist, and new ones are cropping up. Policy makers have determined that the Great Lakes are suffering from good, but very disorganized, intentions and a shortfall in funding. As former EPA administrator Mike Leavitt said in a 2004 speech, "We have lots of musicians, but we need more harmony."

Finding Harmony

In May 2004, in an effort to support restoration efforts and, some analysts say, create political goodwill in key election states during an election year, President Bush jumped into the Great Lakes policy arena. He issued an executive order that recognized the Great Lakes as a "national treasure" and established an interagency task force of 10 cabinet and agency heads to coordinate restoration projects under the EPA's leadership.

The president also directed the EPA to convene a Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) of stakeholders in the lakes. Participants held their first meeting on 3 December 2004. The collaboration includes elected officials from the eight Great Lakes states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) and representatives of municipal and county governments, environmental groups, and 30 Indian tribes. The Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, as well as the Government of Canada, serve as observers.

The collaboration, although intended to bring harmony to a discordant orchestra of voices and opinions, is "unprecedented in its scale and bureaucratic complexity," the Christian Science Monitor asserted in its 22 December 2004 edition. Nevertheless, the collaboration "is coming together very well," says Gary Gulezian, director of the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago. The collaboration is "an idea whose time had come," he asserts.

Most of the work of the collaboration is being done through eight "strategy teams." Any representative of groups working on Great Lakes issues may volunteer to be on a team. Each team is addressing one priority issue: habitat and species, indicators and information, areas of concern, reduction of persistent bioaccumulative toxics, invasive species, sustainable development, coastal health, and non-point source pollution. …

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