Archive for the ‘Great Lakes’ Category

Don’t dig a deeper hole for the Great Lakes

February 22, 2013

First do no harm. That’s a maxim for the medical profession – and we should follow it when it comes to responding to Great Lakes crises.

Make no mistake: this crisis is real and scary. In Lake Michigan, for example, the water level is a full 5 feet lower than it was during the record highs of 1987. Five feet! So today you could be standing on a beach with your feet dry, when 25 years ago the water would have been up to your neck.

The low water levels are really socking it to our region’s businesses – cargo ships have to leave freight behind to lighten their loads; marinas are high and dry; fishing boats can’t get through channels. News outlets are taking notice, documenting hardships in Michigan and Wisconsin. As water levels continue to fall, it’s become a national story covered by CNN and National Geographic.

What’s the cause? One of the best analyses is from WBEZ’s Lewis Wallace, who reports on a combination of factors: natural cycles, less precipitation, more evaporation, less ice cover, and the results of dredging in the St. Clair River.

It’s pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that climate change is playing a major role and that while lake levels may rebound, the long term trend is downward.  Precipitation rates, evaporation and ice cover all are climate-driven, and as the air warms, at least the last two (evaporation and ice cover) will only get worse.

So far, the response has been short term actions focused on shipping: more money for dredging harbors and channels. Michigan has freed up $11 million in state funds to pay for more dredging. And then there’s all the money in the national Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund — $6 billion accumulated that has NOT been spent on harbor maintenance because the government has used it to fill in other parts of the budget. There are proposals to use more of that money to dredge.

But it seems to me that “dredge, baby, dredge” isn’t going to solve this problem. Sure, we have to do some emergency dredging. But if lake levels really are trending down, what’s the long term answer? We can’t keep on digging out the lakes or the Great Lakes will begin to look like the Great Canyons. It’s worth remembering that dredging is what helped get us into this mess in the first place – the St. Clair River dredging lowered lake levels by at least an estimated 20 inches.

And what do we do with all of the dredged materials – dump them in the lakes like we do now? That’s making the Lake Erie dead zone larger and more severe.

So here’s an idea: can we flip the solution? Rather than trying to save our shipping only by deepening channels and harbors, can we find a way to raise water levels or at least to slow their decline? That would mean taking actions like regulating lake levels better, conserving more water, restoring wetlands, increasing groundwater infiltration, and reducing the sudden runoff produced by increasing severe storms. Those are not easy and they have their own dangers.

But this approach is worth a much closer look before we dig ourselves into a deeper hole.


Great Lakes Summit Coming This Summer

January 23, 2013

This could be a big deal for the Great Lakes.

Last week, in the highest profile address he makes all year, the State of the State, Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder called for all the region’s Governors and Premiers to gather this summer on Mackinac Island for a Great Lakes Summit. In his words:

In June, I was proud to be elected the co-chair of the Great Lakes Governor’s Council and what we are going to be doing. I have already invited the other Governors and Premiers, so hopefully we will be holding a session on Mackinac Island, bringing Great Lakes’ Governors and Premiers together, to talk about what, and how, we can do more to protect and enhance and benefit the Great Lakes of our wonderful state, which, we all love. So that’s important.

Snyder telegraphed that he’d be making this announcement in November in a speech he made on energy and the environment. Still, elevating the Great Lakes summit to the State of the State is a welcome development. While we don’t the details yet, it’s a safe bet that key issues like invasive species, the economic benefits of the lakes and funding will be somewhere on the agenda.

So why might this be a major deal for the lakes? Well, let’s look at the history. A summit like this has happened only once before:  thirty years ago, in 1982, convened by Michigan’s Governor Milliken, again on Mackinac Island. The governors met, sponsored resolutions and then afterwards began to work on implementing them.

Those resolutions eventually led to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the Great Lakes Initiative (an amendment to the Clean Water Act), Congressional protections against water diversions, the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, and the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy which has served as the blueprint for over $1 billion in federal investment in the Great Lakes. Some of these took awhile, but the foundations were laid at the Summit meeting in 1982.

So what will come out of this year’s summit?

For one thing, at the very least it will bring the current governors and premiers of the region together for the first time to forge an identity as Great Lakes leaders. In much of the past decade, the Great Lakes region had a remarkably stable group of governors and premiers who saw the value of the Great Lakes to our land and water, to our economy, to our health, and to our quality of life. Their understanding of those issues and their collective identity as Great Lakes leaders helped unify the region and move forward the Compact, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and other unprecedented protections for the lakes.

But the region’s most recent crop of governors has been more exclusively focused on crises in their states. They haven’t come together as a region, and that’s hurt our region’s collective power. This summit could unify them to capture the momentum the Great Lakes enjoyed in the last decade.

I have more ambitious dreams for the summit. Our region’s problems and opportunities more and more bridge the environment and the economy. The Compact and the GLRI show that protecting the Great Lakes is good for our economy. A groundbreaking Brookings Institution study by top economists proved it for all to see.

Our businesses now see the Great Lakes as one of our region’s major competitive advantages. The region’s metro Chambers of Commerce – from all the big Great Lakes cities – have formed their own organization to promote that advantage.

This summit has the opportunity to frame solutions through that perspective – to think of the Great Lakes as the environment and economy working together and not in opposition. Think about it – when economic and ecological systems work together, when the Great Lakes are healthy, isn’t that when our states and our region are most prosperous, most attractive to industry and best for our workers, most pleasing to our residents?

These governors and premiers at this summit are well positioned to make this happen. I hope they see the opportunity and run with it.

Enbridge Oil Pipeline is a Sunken Hazard in the Great Lakes

October 22, 2012

I got a surprise last week after we released our report on the Enbridge oil pipeline that runs along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac:  a national business news story that seemed to imply that Enbridge’s investors seem to be as concerned about the pipeline as we are. NASDAQ put out an article entitled, Safety of Enbridge Mackinac Pipeline Questioned By NWF; Stock Down 1%. And Bloomberg Business came out with “Great Lakes At Risk Of Major Oil Spill, Report Warns”.

After thinking it through, such a business reaction makes sense. The NWF report, Sunken Hazard: Aging oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac, an ever-present threat to the Great Lakes, documents a potentially disastrous plan for the Great Lakes: the expansion of a 20 million gallon a day oil pipeline on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. The report, written by Beth Wallace and Jeff Alexander, reveals a ticking time bomb that threatens the jewels of Michigan and the Great Lakes – the straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Island.

The new report describes a 60-year old pipeline carrying 20 million gallons a day of toxic oil at high temperature and pressure under the Straits of Mackinac. This pipeline is operated by Enbridge, the same company that was responsible for the massive oil spill into the Kalamazoo River two years ago. And now Enbridge is proposing to increase the pumping capacity by 50,000 barrels a day – that’s 2.1 million gallons.

Until now, this pipeline and its proposed expansion have stayed under the radar of the public…and apparently, Enbridge’s investors.

But now they’re seemingly paying attention. As the report details, a major rupture in this pipeline (Line 5) could result in a BP-oil-sized catastrophe in the Great Lakes. That’s a lot of liability. And the company’s record does not inspire confidence that Line 5 is secure or that Enbridge could minimize the damage if it did spring a leak. Enbridge has had 800 pipeline spills and ruptures between 1999 and 2010, including 80 spills in the pipeline system that includes Line 5.

We’ve worked so hard over the past few years to clean up the Great Lakes, and we’ve made enormous progress with Great Lakes restoration funding, the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, and a new binational Great Lakes agreement to protect water quality. That progress would all be thrown away if Enbridge’s Line 5 should rupture.

This is a recipe for disaster. Enbridge cannot be allowed to expand the oil flow in Line 5 – instead, it should replace the line with new pipe to greatly reduce the risk of a leak. That’s a win-win: it’s the right thing to do for the Great Lakes, and it should give Enbridge’s investors some peace of mind.

It’s Time to Get Outside

October 3, 2012

Hi, everyone. After a summer blogging break, I’m back with a new challenge: the indoor child.

Yesterday, Michigan’s online news magazine, The Bridge, ran a piece I wrote, Let’s Open the Door for Student Success, about an unrecognized epidemic that’s harming our children, our communities, and our planet. Gone are the days of kids spending their days outside. Now most kids rarely see the outdoors, and instead are plugged into computers and electronic media – an average of 7.5 hours per day per child, not even counting schoolwork, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And kids recognize 1000 corporate brands, but not even 10 things in their own backyard.

This indoor childhood trend hurts kids health (obesity, diabetes) and ability to learn in school. It also depletes the conservation ethic for the next generation – how can kids learn to love what they never experience? And that threatens our communities and all of our futures.

This problem is one we can solve, and it won’t break the bank. Here’s what I wrote in The Bridge:

Part of that new course must be flipping the current balance of indoor-outdoor time during the school day on its head. For too many kids in the Great Lakes State, school is exclusively an indoor experience, and they suffer for it. Research shows that school programs that get kids outside (school gardens and habitats, daily outdoor recess) have proven to better engage students, reduce dropout rates and improve test scores.

Using the schoolyard, community and landscape as the classroom — a learning model called place-based education — is another vital step we must take. Studies (and practical application) show that engagement in learning is heightened through place-based education, as is achievement, natural resource conservation and citizenship.

Reaping the rewards of place-based education requires teachers and administrators who are equipped, trained, supported and comfortable in implementing place-based education best practices. Therefore ongoing professional development in those best practices is essential.

Read the rest of the article.

And for more ideas and information on how to get kids outside, check out our Be Out There campaign!

Great Lakes Are Down In The Count When It Comes To Invasive Species

April 10, 2012

Saturday opened the first weekend of the baseball season and an excellent article in the New York Times on the government’s weak attempts to hit invasive species out of the park (or at least out of the Great Lakes). I’m afraid that we’ve used up one strike already, and we could easily whiff on the next two pitches.

Here’s why this metaphor is less strained that you’d think.

Strike one was the Coast Guard ballast water rules reported on by the Times. Twenty-two years after zebra mussels colonized the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard finally issues rules designed to keep out invasive species. Those rules are a step in the right direction (they actually require ships to install measures to treat invasive species for the first time – imagine!). But the Coast Guard’s rules are too little, and much too delayed.

The Coast Guard’s weak ballast water rules still allow ships to discharge some invaders in their ballast, and as we all know, it only takes two critters to meet at the right time, and suddenly you have a breeding population. Equally bad, the rules allow some ships to avoid installing any treatment for nine more years –  until 2021. D’ya think the first 20 years would have been enough lead time?

Two more pitches are coming over plate next, and our batters aren’t looking so good. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a draft permit that’s not much better than the Coast Guard rule. The permit is not final, so the agency has the chance to improve it, and many of us have sent in comments (pdf) urging just that–for the EPA to make important improvements to the ballast water permit. But if the EPA doesn’t do an about face on the permit, then the Great Lakes will suffer a big Strike Two.

And the final pitch is how the states handle the EPA ballast water permit. Each of the Great Lakes states has the chance to add protections to the EPA permit when it is applied in state waters. Given how much states depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water, economic growth, and quality of life, you’d think that the states would be lining up to bolster protections against the invasion of non-native species like zebra mussels. But so far, the silence has been deafening—and the clock is ticking. The states have until May to certify the EPA permit. At least one state (Wisconsin) has said it only wants to apply the weak EPA/Coast Guard standards, cracking the door open for new invaders.

State inaction would be Strike Three. With apologies to “Casey At The Bat,” striking out would bring no joy to Mudville … or to the Great Lakes.

Of the White House, Asian carp, and leadership

March 14, 2012

It’s been two weeks since what I think of as “the White House meetings,” when Great Lakes advocates sat down with senior White House officials for two discussions as part of Great Lakes Days in Washington D.C. , Now that the dust has settled, I wanted to share a few thoughts.

First, the White House is COOL! It’s not amazingly ornate or solemn or beautiful; it’s a working space, a little on the small side. But when you walk in you’re hit with this sense of import and energy and focus. Huge decisions get made there by serious people, and whether you agree with them or not, it’s a pretty intoxicating place to be.

It was hard not to be intimidated sitting in the Roosevelt Room across from Administration officials during the White House meeting Monday. I’m proud to say that our merry band of activists was focused, thoughtful, and completely professional — until after the meeting ended. Then everybody started talking at once and tried to get pictures of everybody else in front of the portrait of Teddy on this horse, or FDR, or the Nobel Peace Prize (yeah, that’s hanging on the wall).

If you want a good summary of that meeting and the larger one on Wednesday in the auditorium of the Old Executive Office Building, a good place to go is Joel Brammeier’s blog.  He walks through the issues — funding, nutrients, Asian carp, invasive species, etc. — one at a time and reports on the main discussion points.

First Impression: Obama Admin. Committed to the Great Lakes

I wanted to write about two impressions I took away. First, the Obama Administration truly is committed to the Great Lakes. That commitment, of course, is reflected in the Great Lakes funding budget numbers this and previous years, and we got a pretty good idea of the political capital the Administration had to spend to keep that funding intact.

But it really came through on a personal level in those meetings. Top officials from throughout the Administration, like Commerce Secretary John Bryson not only showed up and made a few comments — they really knew the Great Lakes. I’ll never forget Pete Rouse, President Obama’s special advisor, dropping in to address 120 Great Lakes leaders Wednesday afternoon. Without notes or pause, he spoke for 15 minutes about Great Lakes problems and initiatives, including Lake Erie, Asian carp, funding…. This guy has maybe a thousand issues to keep up with every day, and he knew the Great Lakes stuff cold. That says a lot about this Administration’s priorities at the highest level.

Second Impression: Asian Carp Blind Spot

My second impression is not as positive. When it comes to Asian carp, the Administration still has a blind spot. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, it’s not exerting the kind of leadership from the top that the Lakes need. And when I say from the top, I mean someone at a level who can change the parameters of the debate and move the Army Corps of Engineers.

I don’t know if it’s an overabundance of caution, or an urge to get everybody on the same page before moving forward, but the bold leadership we need here is lacking in critical ways.

To be fair, the Administration has moved quickly and forcefully when it comes to short-term measures to keep the invasive carp out of Lake Michigan, and to the extent that there is not yet a breeding population of Asian carp in the Chicago canals or the lake, those measures have been successful, as Cam Davis pointed out at the briefing. But we know those short-term measures aren’t perfect — witness the discovery of Asian carp eDNA in the canals and at the edge of the lake and the capture of a live silver carp in Lake Calumet. We also know the risk grows every day. That’s why a permanent solution is so important.

Bold Vision Needed on Asian Carp

What’s needed is a vision for that permanent solution and a plan to get there. The conservation community has been pushing for over two years for permanent physical barriers to separate Lake Michigan from the carp-infested rivers in the Mississippi River basin, and the Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Cities Initiative have just finished a study showing how and where such barriers could be built. The reaction from the Administration? No commitments, they say; let’s wait until 2015 for the results of a study by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The White House meetings changed little of that. Pete Rouse said that the Corps would speed up its study but provided no specifics – echoing a letter from Jo Ellen Darcy to concerned U.S. Senators promising to try to accelerate the study. That’s something, but not a lot; there’s no specific date of completion or commitment to study hydrologic separation and not half-measures that won’t protect the lakes from Asian carp. (And I’d like to recognize that the staff of the Corps has been much more transparent in their study timelines and tasks, something we appreciate even if it doesn’t resolve our central concerns.) Certainly there was no bold vision for how to address the crisis.

President & Candidates Must Reframe the Debate on Asian Carp

What we need is to change the framing of the debate. With one sentence, the President could change the conversation from whether there should be permanent physical barriers built in the canals to where, when and how such barriers should be built. More than anything else, that would create the momentum we need to get to an effective permanent barrier quickly, before the carp invade the lakes.

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition has called on the President and all the candidates for the presidency in 2012 to make the commitment to hydrologically separate the Mississippi and Great Lakes basins.

The President and the Administration have exercised bold leadership on so many Great Lakes issues. It’s time they did so on this one, too.

Next post: toxic algal blooms and what we should be doing about them.

Great Lakes Votes Matter in Presidential Race

February 13, 2012

‘Tis the season…..Not that season. The political season, and more specifically, that period when, every four years, the national political parties are particularly attentive to the Midwest. In case you’ve been living deep underground, shielded from all radio waves, yes, it’s a presidential election year.

This year our states seem to be hearing less than one might expect  from the White House aspirants—Obama, Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul. But that’s about to change. Now that the Michigan Republican primary is getting closer (February 28) and the Ohio primaries is close behind (March 6), the candidates will be turning their attention to our region. Yet their interest goes far beyond the primary.

You might think that every region of the country believes it’s “special” when it comes to presidential elections; after all, everybody votes. But it turns out that some votes are more important than others. Here’s why.

What do Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all have in common? Yes, they’re Great Lakes states. But it also happens that they are expected to be presidential election swing states – states that could go to either the Republicans or the Democrats. Which means that the presidential candidates and their parties have to campaign in those states, and campaign hard, all the way through the November election.

Great Lakes Swing States

If you look at the political map, you’ll see that the Great Lakes region has the highest concentration of swing states of any region in the country. And these states are big; they hold lots of electoral votes.

Which is why people who vote in those states have more clout that people who vote in, say, California (a safe Democratic state) or Idaho (a safe Republican one). Voters in swing states like ours can swing their state one direction or the other, and maybe take the entire presidential election with them.

Here’s why swing states are so important: what people care about in those states becomes what the candidates care about. And we know two issues of great importance to those voters: Great Lakes restoration and Asian carp.

Voters Support Keeping the Great Lakes Healthy

The  Great  Lakes are not just the dominant natural feature the ties the region together; they are the basis of the region’s economy and quality of life. They are our competitive advantage. Voters recognize that and they strongly support candidates who want to keep the lakes healthy. That fact is reflected in poll after poll, in frequent editorials, and in the strong support that Great Lakes restoration receives from leaders from both parties.

Likewise, people in those states (particularly in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin) see Asian carp as a huge threat to the Great Lakes, and they want the federal government to act to stop the invasive fish. Editorials throughout those states have raised the alarm and castigated the Army Corps of Engineers for moving too slowly.  Just last week, a Michigan EPIC/MRA poll found the following:

  • 6-in-10 Michigan voters favor erecting barriers in Chicago Canals to prevent Asian Carp from entering Lake Michigan
  • More than 7-in-10 know “a lot” or “some” about Asian Carp issue
  • Nearly 3-in-4 are very concerned about Asian Carp entering Lake Michigan

Great Lakes Pledge for Presidential Candidates

The presidential candidates can’t afford to be weak on Great Lakes issues or Asian carp. To help them make a meaningful commitment, the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition has provided a special service. We’ve  drafted a Great Lakes pledge, and we’re asking each candidate to sign it. Here are the concrete commitments the candidates need to make:

“I will maintain historic funding levels and, where appropriate, increase Great Lakes restoration funding over existing levels in my annual budgets for the priorities outlined in the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and for future protections of the Great Lakes, such as fewer beach closures and sewer overflows, more clean up of toxic sediments, more restoration of wetlands, and greater prevention of new invasive species; and

“I support a permanent solution to the threat of Asian Carp and other aquatic invasive species entering the Great Lakes.   I will order the Army Corps of Engineers to take all necessary measures to construct a permanent barrier to hydrologically separate the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes basin at Chicago. Those measures include completion of a study by December 31, 2013, to determine the best means of hydrological separation; interim actions to prevent the Asian carp from establishing breeding populations in Lake Michigan until the construction of the permanent barrier is completed; the inclusion of the necessary funds for those measures in my budget proposals to Congress; and the development and implementation of a long-term financing strategy to construct and operate the permanent barrier.”

These commitments are concrete for a reason. Voters can tell that a candidate is serious if he signs the pledge. If he won’t sign, then you know he’s waffling on the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes: The Year In Review

December 15, 2011

Between Letterman and Colbert, it’s pretty daunting to put together any sort of year-end Top 10 list, especially for something as esoteric as Great Lakes policy. But an awful lot has happened this year and I thought I’d take a shot.

So without any (intentional) irony or comedy, here’s my list of the top 10 developments (good and bad) in Great Lakes policy for 2011 – plus a bonus entry at the end! And to add to the excitement, I’ve tried to put these in order of significance and concluded with a final grade for 2011. Debate on the entries, the order and the grade is welcome. (Drum roll, please):

    1. Great Lakes restoration funding: Congress came through at $300 million for FY 11 in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That’s significantly less than the baseline set by the Obama Administration in 2009, but still quite robust, especially considering the budget axes being wielded on both sides of the aisle.Great Lakes restoration funding continues to be the exception to the partisan warfare

      that has plagued this Congress, and we sure hope that continues. GLRI funding has resulted in over 900 restoration projects over the past two years with more projects in the pipeline.

    2. Algal blooms break out in Great Lakes: 2011 was the “year of the algal bloom” in the Great Lakes. Lake Erie suffered the worst toxic algal bloom in recorded history last summer. The algae extended miles along the shoreline and miles out into the water, in places over 6 inches thick. It shut down beaches and fishing and caused respiratory problems for charter boat captains trying to cross the blooms into clearer waters.Algae (some toxic) also broke out in blooms in other lakes, including Huron’s Saginaw Bay and the eastern shore of Lake Michigan up to Sleeping Bear Dunes.

      As described in NWF’s report, Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes, these blooms are caused by excessive nutrients entering the watershed and exacerbated by invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.

      So far, policy solutions have lagged far behind the problem. Although Ohio has a special task force devoted to the crisis, the state does not have the tools or the funds to stop the nutrient additions to the lake. And the best federal tool – a new Farm Bill – is months, if not years, from completion.

    3. Asian Carp Delays: This year we saw continued delays by the Army Corps of Engineers and the courts in taking action toward a permanent barrier to stop Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan. The Corps insists it can’t even finish its feasibility study until 2015.A federal appeals court, while recognizing the importance of stopping the carp from reaching the Great Lakes, refused to order the Corps to speed the study,  and thus far Congressional efforts to do the same have been stymied.Under the Corps’ schedule for completing the study, the carp are likely to colonize the lake and the Corps study will be an exercise in futility. Sampling shows that carp DNA continue to be found near the lake, indicating that at least isolated fish have swum past the electric cable designed to keep them at bay.

      Meanwhile, the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative are finalizing their own study on how to separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River and expect to release it in January – a full three years before the Corps. THAT’S how you do it!

    4. States step up on the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact: New York hit a home run and Ohio barely escaped striking out on the Great Lakes compact this year. New York passed a strong law last summerthat requires anyone withdrawing more than 100,000 gallons of water per day to get approval and apply water conservation measures.Meanwhile, Ohio’s legislature passed a terrible bill that would have allowed almost unlimited withdrawals with no oversight (the thresholds set before regulation kicked in were so high that the legislature expected no water user ever to be regulated). Although initially inclined to sign the bill, pressure from within Ohio and from other Great Lakes states convinced Governor Kasich to issue a much needed veto.

      For a more comprehensive report on how all the states are doing, check out NWF’s report, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

    5. EPA issues new draft permit for ballast discharges into Great Lakes: In November, the EPA issued the draft of a new Vessel General Permit that for the first time would require ships to install treatment technology to clean their ballast water.  That’s the good news.The bad news is that the required technology won’t consistently stop new invasions. The ships would have to meet the International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) standard, which allows ships to continue to discharge invasive organisms at low concentrations into the Great Lakes.But that’s not good enough.Unlike other pollution, invasive species organisms are pollution that reproduce – they multiply. So low concentrations initially can easily become high concentrations over time – which is exactly what happened with zebra mussels.

      Fortunately, the draft EPA rule allows states to enact tougher rules and laws, which is exactly what New York and Michigan have done. Those states’ laws – particularly New York’s, which applies to every vessel entering the Great Lakes – provide far better protections than the EPA’s proposed rule.

      Now the challenge is keeping Congress from invalidating the state laws and establishing the too-weak IMO standard as a legal ceiling – even if it’s clear that the standard doesn’t work. The House has already passed a harmful bill; it’s now up to the Senate to stop it.

    6. Michigan Governor vetoes bill that would have damaged Great Lakes protections: In November, Governor Rick Snyder vetoed his first bill ever: legislation that would have prevented Michigan agencies from issuing any rules or permits that are more restrictive than federal minimums.Without the veto, Michigan would have been unable to reissue its precedent-setting permit to restrict ballast water discharges of invasive species, or to improve its water quality standard for phosphorus, the primary cause of the lakes’ massive and growing algae blooms. The veto was a rare occasion of public disagreement between the Governor and the legislature, making it an even stronger indicator of the Governor’s commitment to the Great Lakes.
    7. Ohio Supreme Court Restores Public’s Rights to Lake Erie: The Ohio Supreme Court gave the people of Ohio a surprising legal victory on the public’s right to access and use the shoreline of Lake Erie.  Two lower court rulings had shrunk the public’s ownership of and access to the Lake Erie coast, essentially giving away this precious resource to private landowners.The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the lower court decisions, returning ownership to the public. The Court’s opinion is not without ambiguities, and the case now goes back to the lower courts for final disposition, where the parties will continue to litigate the case.
    8. EPA is issuing mercury reduction rules for power plants: EPA on December 16 is scheduled to finalize its rules for reducing mercury emissions for power plants, the leading source of mercury in the Great Lakes and inland lakes and streams. All of the Great Lakes states have statewide fish consumptions advisories warning people to restrict or avoid entirely their consumption of certain fish because of mercury contamination. The U.S. House has passed bills to attempt to roll back the EPA protections,  but those bills are unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate.Michigan Out-Of-Doors former TV host Bob Garner led a Tele-Town Hall on the mercury rule this month attended by 14,000 hunters and anglers. As Bob said, “We can’t fillet our way out” of mercury in fish.
    9. Michigan court opens the door to sulfide mining: In November, a Michigan Circuit Court allowed a highly damaging mine to go forward in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula despite overwhelming evidence that the mine would cause acid mine drainage in blue-water trout streams, had a high risk of collapsing and draining those streams, would destroy a place of tribal worship, and violated Michigan’s new mining law in dozens of significant ways.The court decision, which is being appealed, upheld a deeply flawed Michigan DEQ decision and set a potentially devastating precedent for protections of the U.P.’s water, land, recreation and tourism. Various companies are now exploring over a dozen of other potential mining sites in the region and the state has permitted a mining processing center in the U.P., drawing additional mining to the region.
    10. Sewer system funding: This is always one of the under-the-radar stories about the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes states received $549 million to modernize and repair their sewers in FY 11– a top priority for stopping the billions of gallons of raw sewage spilled into the lakes. The Great Lakes states’ funding comes through a national program, the State Revolving Loan Fund of the Clean Water Act, as part of a formula (about one-third of the national total). This funding was cut in FY 11 by 27% and may decline even more in FY 12, even though the need is far greater.

      In the immortal words of This is Spinal Tap, “And this one goes to eleven…”

    11. Seventeen Attorneys General call for action to close the invasive species superhighway: Led by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, seventeen of the nation’s Attorneys General sent a letter to Congress calling for passage of a law to speed the Army Corps of Engineers study on closing the Chicago canal system to invasive species and then to implement the study rapidly.This letter is significant because it indicates a growing concern across the country – not just in the Great Lakes — about the passage of invasive species through the canals in both directions. Most of the attention so far has been on the potential for Asian carp to swim through the canals to Lake Michigan; but there’s at least as much danger for invasive species in Lake Michigan to travel through the canals to invade the Mississippi River and the rest of the nation. That’s already happened with zebra mussels, which began in the Great Lakes and now plague 31 states from Massachusetts to California.  With his growing national coalition of Attorneys General, the pressure on Congress and the Corps to act has increased.

For those of you keeping score, that’s seven positive developments, three negative ones, and one that’s more or less neutral (the EPA’s ballast water permit).

Although this tally is good for the Great Lakes, I’d give 2011 an overall grade of no more than a C+. Some of the good stuff was really stopping policies from getting worse (e.g., the vetoes); and the bad stuff is really bad (massive algal blooms, Asian carp).

Let’s celebrate the 2011 victories for the lakes, and then get ready for 2012. I have a feeling we’re in for quite a year.

Missed opportunities

October 7, 2011

I testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee earlier this week, and I’m not happy with myself.  I missed an opportunity. Unfortunately, so did they, and their missed opportunity has much greater consequences than mine.

I was invited to testify about nutrient problems and programs to address those problems by the Senate Water and Wildlife Subcommittee chaired by Senator Cardin of Maryland. My testimony (pdf) was straightforward: I summarized NWF’s report, Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes,  that we released earlier that day and then I passed on the observations of Lake Erie Charter Boat Association President and Captain Rick Unger.

The level of the ecosystem breakdowns the Great Lakes are experiencing really shocked the members of the subcommittee. I didn’t have time to get into details on lack of nutrients in the open waters of Lake Huron and the crash of fish populations and health there that has resulted. But I was able to provide the following snapshot:

  • This summer Lake Erie experienced the worst toxic algal bloom in its recorded history — even worse than the 1960s, when Lake Erie was declared dead. The toxic algae, mycrosystis, has been measured at levels 1,000 times higher than WHO guidelines for drinking water; this algae can cause sickness or even death in humans and animals.
  • Toxic and green algal blooms are common this summer in nearshore areas throughout the Great Lakes, including Sagainaw Bay and Green Bay.
  • We are seeing extensive blooms of the algae Cladophora along Lake Michigan’s shores, which have interacted with invasive species to produce outbreaks of botulism poisoning that have killed fish and birds.
  • Lake Erie has an anoxic zone where oxygen levels are too low for fish to live that seasonally extends thousands of square miles along the bottom of the lake.

And then I related Captain Unger’s observations. He says that the algae goes for miles along the beaches and extends miles into the open lake. In some places, the algae is two feet thick. It looks like green mud. According to Captain Unger:

“The algae is toxic. There are posted warnings: Don’t drink the water. Don’t touch it. Don’t swim in it. People are getting sick out on the water. Captains have respiratory problems.”

In terms of Captain Unger’s business, bookings are down; people don’t want to go onto the water. Rebookings are nonexistent; once they’ve been out in the algae they don’t want to go back.

When the algae moves in, the fish move out,” reports Captain Unger.
Because he has to take his boat out much farther to find fish, he says, “The costs of doing business are skyrocketing.”

Last year there were 800 charter boat captains in Lake Erie. This year, there are 700 – they lost 100 in a year. And by next year there will be a lot fewer. Captain Unger says there is no doubt that trend is because of the algae blooms.

“There’s miles and miles where the fish can’t live,” he says. “It’s turning back into the 1960s, when it was called a dead lake.”

The Senators were surprised and concerned. So far so good. So what went wrong?

Anybody who watched the hearing would see it right away (view the archived webcast). While Senator Cardin really wanted to engage on how to solve these problems – you can tell he’s completely committed to restoring the Chesapeake Bay and is passionate about addressing its terrible damage – most of his colleagues on the subcommittee wanted to play “gotcha” with the EPA instead.

After EPA’s Nancy Stoner testified about EPA’s efforts nationally and in Florida to set water quality standards that would help reduce nutrient pollution, most of the hearing was devoted to accusing EPA of trying to take over the Florida nutrient management program, of imposing its will on the states, of wrecking the economy, of driving enterprises out of business….. I was surprised they didn’t accuse EPA of ruining the housing market. Maybe that’s next week.

If this sounds familiar, it is: it’s the partisan political strategy being used in Washington to attack the Obama Administration. The problem is that it completely ignores the multiple nutrient-related crises we’re seeing in the Great Lakes and across the country: exploding numbers of algal blooms and dead zones; people getting sick and wildlife and fish dying; tourist and fishing businesses going under.

Our current laws and programs are losing ground. The largest source of nutrient pollution, non-point runoff, primarily from agriculture, is unregulated (and appears to be unregulatable). Voluntary programs hold promise but don’t have the focus, penetration, reach or funding to stem the tide of degradation, much less make improvements at scale.

So what does the Senate subcommittee do? Address the real problem? No. It plays political “gotcha” while the nation suffers.

So what was my missed opportunity? I had the chance to say all that in my five minutes of testimony, but I didn’t; I stuck to my script. And the more I think about it, the angrier I get.

I’d love to have those five minutes back but that’s not going to happen. So I’ll write it down here and share it as widely as I can. Feel free to join me.

Let’s let the subcommittee – and all of our political leaders – know that we expect them to address the nation’s real crises, not the ones that they manufacture.

The Chicago Canal Problem Goes National

September 29, 2011

This week may turn out to be a watershed moment (that’s a very intentional pun) for stopping the movement of invasive species through the Chicago canals.

On Monday, the attorneys general of seventeen states — from West Virginia to Arizona, from Louisiana to Wyoming — called on Congress to order the Army Corps of Engineers to take rapid action and install a barrier in the Chicago canal system that will permanently and hydrologically separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River basin (read the attorney generals’ letter to the chairs of key congressional committees (pdf).

This is the first time that top officials from states outside the Great Lakes region have weighed in on this issue, and it could be a game changer.

So why are they engaging? For them, it’s not about Asian carp. It’s about the Great Lakes sending invasive species through the Chicago canals out into the vast Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio River system. The Chicago canals threaten the health of their states – economic and ecological – and they’re beginning to fight back.

The best example is the spread of zebra mussels from the Great Lakes through the Chicago canals to the rest of the country. As I’ve posted before, you can see their spread, year by year, in this animated map published by NWF and the U.S. Geological Survey.

That damage has already been done; the zebra mussels have spread through the canals and into the Mississippi River system. What these eleven non-Great Lakes states are worrying about is the next invader to come through. Will it be quagga mussels? Eurasian ruffe? Round gobies? Spiny water fleas? Or something that has yet to invade the Great Lakes?

Kudos to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette for leading this effort. As bad as Asian carp are for the Great Lakes, he’s made other regions see that Great Lakes invaders could be equally damaging for them.

The Chicago canals are not a one-way street; they’re a highway that carries invasives in both directions. The electric fence currently in the canals will have little effect in stopping many of them.

We need a permanent  physical barrier. The safety of our nation’s waters demands it.