Archive for March, 2011

Great Lakes Stories That Deserve More Attention

March 23, 2011

I wanted to note two blog posts on important Great Lakes issues that aren’t getting nearly enough play.

The first is a post on the St. Lawrence Seaway by Jennifer Caddick, the talented director of Save the River in New York. On the day of the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, she points out the many things the Seaway has brought us that aren’t cause for celebration: sea lamprey that swam through the canals, zebra and quagga mussels that were discharged in the ballast water of ocean-going vessels, air pollution from ships idling in ports, and the destruction of native wetlands by an industry that has demanded artificially uniform water levels.

The Seaway and the shipping industry has fought tooth and nail against changing any of these destructive practices. As Jennifer says,

“The Seaway agencies and shipping industry have systematically put themselves on the wrong side of environmental policy debates. For nearly 20 years, since the introduction of the zebra mussel, they resisted any rules to clean up ship ballast tanks to prevent further invasive species introductions…..Shippers and the Seaway are on record opposing the environmentally beneficial water levels plan (Plan B+) that our communities have been supporting for years. They’ve fought for (and unfortunately won) exemptions from federal rules to clean up ship smokestack emissions, making some of the Great Lakes ships among the dirtiest air polluters in the industry. And, the Seaway has unilaterally extended the shipping season on the St. Lawrence River, with no input from River communities, state or federal environmental and safety agencies, or elected officials. “

To add insult to injury, the Seaway now claims to be the most “environmentally responsible marine transportation systems in the world.” I wonder what they think an environmentally destructive system would look like?

The second post on Chicago’s sewage problems, from Jeff Alexander, sheds some light on an incredibly important funding priority for the Great Lakes that often gets lost in the budget debates. Jeff reports on a  Chicago Tribune story that reveals that Chicago has dumped over 19 billion gallons of raw sewage mixed with stormwater into the Great Lakes since 2007…despite a $3 billion investment in a “Deep Tunnel” project that was supposed to fix the problem.  And Chicago is just one of many older cities (Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and others) that discharge untreated sewage to the lakes when it rains.

So what is Congress’s solution to the sewage problem?

Spend less  money in fixing the sewers. That’s right, the budget bill passed by the House cut funding to sewer repair and modernization by two-thirds – a whopping 67%. That cut will not only add billions of gallons of raw sewage to the lakes; it will also cost the region jobs and economic growth…22,000 jobs, according to a Brookings Institution report (pdf).

As a country, we’re finding out that there aren’t many budget cuts that are easy to make. But some aren’t just hard, they’re bad–and will cost us much more money in near future. This is one of those bad cuts.

Polluting the lakes AND costing 22,000 jobs…. that’s a cut that will keep on hurting for many years.

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March 1 Dispatch from Washington

March 2, 2011

Like everybody else, I thought that any big news coming out of Washington’s Great Lakes Days this week would be about the Great Lakes restoration budget. And certainly that’s what most of the briefings and conversations are about.

But lost in the budget news are important new developments about (you guessed it) Asian carp. From a brief, low-key presentation to the Great Lakes Commission, we learned that Asian carp are much more likely to reproduce and have much more food to eat in the Great Lakes than scientists previously thought.

That means that if the invasive carp make it to the Great Lakes, they’re likely to spread fast and far and do even more damage than we’d feared.

Here’s what we heard. Dr. Leon Carl, director of the scientists at the Great Lakes/Midwest division of the USGS (that’s the US Geological Service, the science agency charged with doing much of the fisheries research on Asian carp), on Monday told the Commission that scientists had discovered two new problems:

  1. Asian carp larvae learn to swim vertically at younger ages than scientists had previously assumed. What that means is that the larvae don’t need to be suspended as long in turbulent water to survive and thrive…. which means that shorter river segments or even the coastal areas of the Great Lakes themselves can support Asian carp reproduction. That’s very disturbing news. Until now, scientists thought that Asian carp could only breed in a handful of long tributaries to the lakes, which would limit their ability to spread if they did get into the lakes. Now their capacity to breed and spread looks much greater.
  2. Asian carp eat Cladophora, a common algae that grows along much of the Great Lakes shoreline. That’s another stunner. Scientists had believed that there wasn’t enough food in much of the Great Lakes to support the voracious carp. Now it turns out that there’s plenty of food along much of the coastline to support the spread of the invasive fish.

After the briefing, Leon told me that these new findings make him deeply concerned. He’s right.

The likely damage from an Asian carp invasion has just skyrocketed, as has the urgency for taking action. So far, we’re lucky that the monster carp haven’t established breeding populations in the canals or Lake Michigan. But we can’t count on being lucky for much longer.

We need the Corps to construct a permanent barrier, and fast.