Posts Tagged ‘Great Lakes’

Great Lakes Leadership

June 19, 2012

If there was ever a day when the Great Lakes need presidential – and presidential candidate –leadership, today is it.

First there’s this week’s release of the latest Asian carp eDNA tests by the Army Corps of Engineers from a single sampling day: 17 positive hits for silver carp past the electronic fence, including 14 in Lake Calumet, a direct shot to Lake Michigan, only five miles away. That’s bad – really bad. Never before has a single sampling event yielded that many positive hits in the Chicago waterways system. In fact, there were only 34 positive hits for Asian carp in all of 2011, and we just got half of that in one sampling day (May 22). Although the Corps cautions that eDNA readings don’t necessarily mean the presence of live fish, that’s pretty hard to argue with so much evidence in such a short time period. It’s pretty clear that the Asian carp are advancing past the electronic fence toward Lake Michigan. The question is how long it takes them to establish a breeding population….and whether our political leaders will act before it’s too late.

Then there’s funding for Great Lakes restoration. Today, the subcommittee considering the EPA’s budget in the  U.S. House of Representatives cut Great Lakes restoration funding by $50 million for next year. That reduces it to $250 million, almost a 50 percent decrease from the $475 million baseline passed in 2010. This, despite the fact that restoring the Great Lakes has proven to be an excellent investment ecologically AND economically; that over 600 projects are underway in eight states that put people back to work; and that the need for restoration work is greater than ever.  Talk to Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, and you’ll hear how algal blooms are decimating Lake Erie and the region’s businesses (including his own). He’ll tell you how important Great Lakes restoration funding is to anybody who fishes, works, or drinks water.

So, what to do, and who should do it? I have an easy answer: President Obama and Governor Romney can fix both of these, right now.  Both of them should publicly commit to maintaining Great Lakes restoration funding – no cuts – and tell their allies in the House and Senate to get in line. Both of them should announce their commitment to building a permanent barrier in the Chicago canals as soon as possible to stop the invasive carp from advancing any further toward Lake Michigan – and to doing whatever it takes to get that barrier in place ASAP. Both of them should tell their respective party leaders to provide the funding and authority needed to stop the carp. And both of them should sign the Great Lakes pledge issued by the Healing Our Waters Coalition, which asks for precisely these commitments.

Sometimes leaders have to make tough and unpopular decisions to do the right thing. This isn’t one of those times. The right thing is to protect 90 percent of the nation’s surface fresh water, the drinking water of 30 million Americans, and the engine for a multi-million dollar economy. The easy thing is to preserve the water wonderland of the people in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota – which just happen to be 2012 presidential swing states.

The Great Lakes need leadership – and this one’s easy. Will the presidential candidates step up?

Wooing Great Lakes Voters

May 16, 2012

This week the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent a shot across the bow of the presidential candidates. In an editorial, it chastised the Obama Administration for doing too little, too late to stop Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes. It criticized the Army Corps of Engineers for moving too slowly in finding a permanent solution, and took the Administration to task for failing to support hydrological separation between the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes.

It concluded with, “If Obama really wants to woo voters in the Great Lakes states, he should tell the Army Corps to take the coalition report, crunch the numbers quickly, and start shoveling dirt.”

If this sounds familiar, it should: this is the same logic that prompted the Healing Our Waters Coalition and NWF to issue the Great Lakes Protection and Restoration Presidential Candidates Pledge. Healing Our Waters, the 120-organization coalition dedicated to restoring and protecting the Great Lakes, asked all the candidates for president to pledge to:

  1. Maintain and if possible increase funding for Great Lakes restoration, and
  2. Commit to constructing a barrier in the Chicago canals that would hydrologically separate the Mississippi River and Great Lakes watersheds.

President Obama has committed to the funding, but as the Plain Dealer points out so clearly, he’s resisted committing to the long-term measures needed to stop the invasion of Asian carp.

What the Plain Dealer hasn’t said is that thus far, Governor Romney has committed to neither.

I hope both candidates read the Plain Dealer editorial. The largest newspaper in the most critical swing state in the nation is telling them what moves their voters, and guess what? It’s the Great Lakes.

Mr. President and Mr. Governor, how about that pledge?

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.

The Door Opens Both Ways

August 8, 2011

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As if Asian carp weren’t enough of a threat, the Detroit Free Press on Sunday  reported on a new potential invader that might attack the Great Lakes through the Chicago canal system: the snakehead fish, also known as the “Frankenfish.”

If you thought Asian carp were bad, check out this monster:

  • The snakehead uses its large jaw and big teeth to eat other fish – not just algae and microorganisms like the filter-feeding Asian carp.
  • Like the invasive carp, the snakehead breeds like a mosquito and eats like a hog. It lays thousands of eggs in multiple breeding seasons and guards its nests to protect its young. And although not quite as large as the Asian carp (adults are 3 feet in length), the snakehead also is a voracious eater.
  • The snakehead’s big claim to fame, however, is that IT CAN MOVE OVER LAND, from stream to stream! Like a snake, it wiggles along in ditches and can survive several days outside the water. It breathes air! Which means that once it establishes a breeding population, it’s very hard to contain.

The snakehead hasn’t been found in the Mississippi River…yet. But because it has established breeding populations at least one stream tributary to the Mississippi, fish biologists think it will soon reach the Big Muddy. Once there, of course, it’s only  a matter of time until they reach the Chicago canals and then Lake Michigan – unless a permanent barrier is erected first.

So the Chicago canals once again may be the conduit through which Great Lakes destruction can pass. But here’s the irony: the Chicago canal system is a door that swings both ways. The canals may soon bring species that wreak havoc on the Great Lakes; but the canals already have brought incalculable damage to the Mississippi River basin. Those canals have transmitted our very own scourge, zebra mussels, to most of the rest of the country.

You can watch that door swing right here. NWF’s Trilby Becker has worked with USGS to produce two motion maps. In one you can see the spread of Asian carp up the Mississippi , through the Chicago canals, right to the edge of the Great Lakes.  In the other, you’ll see zebra mussels start in the Great Lakes and move through the Chicago canals, down the Mississippi, to most of the rest of the country. And you can read Trilby’s blog about it.

These maps show visually what scientists found in a recent study, Aquatic Invasive Species Risk Assessment for the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (Jerde, Barnes, McNulty, Mahon, Chadderton, and Lodge, 2010): that the Chicago canals pose an equally great risk to the Mississippi River and its tributaries (like the Missouri and Ohio Rivers) as they do to the Great Lakes. The study concluded that 17 species in the Mississippi River pose a high risk to the Great Lakes, and 10 species in the Great Lakes pose an equally high risk to the Mississippi. And that doesn’t count the zebra mussels that have already infested the Mississippi and its tributaries.

So putting an effective, permanent barrier to stop invasives from moving through the Chicago canals is imperative for the Great Lakes. It’s not just Asian carp we need to worry about; there are other monsters like the snakehead out there waiting to devastate our lakes. Electric fences and half measure won’t cut it.

But we also know that this isn’t just a Great Lakes problem. What starts in the Great Lakes won’t stay there, at least without that permanent barrier. As the motion maps make all too clear, the rest of the country needs protection from the Great Lakes, too.

Fixing the Chicago canals is a national problem, and we need a national solution, fast.

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.

The Budget and the Great Lakes

February 16, 2011

Before we get into the budget (and I have to warn you, this post is not for the mathematically faint of heart), I wanted to highlight several non-budget Great Lakes developments that NWF staff just published posts about:

Now for the budget.

On the surface the numbers are pretty straightforward: for this year (FY 11), the House Committee on Appropriations has proposed $225 million for Great Lakes restoration funding, as compared to $300 million in the President’s budget. And for next year (FY 12), the President has proposed $350 million for Great Lakes restoration funding and the House has yet to come out with its budget. But what does that mean?

Let’s look at it through a few different lenses:

Financial: As the Healing Our Waters Coalition points out in this week’s news release, the baseline for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding is $475 million a year – the amount the Great Lakes received in FY 10 and the amount that the President pledged in annual funding as he launched the GLRI that year. Neither the President nor the House committee has hit that target, and the House is much farther away than the President.

But the math gets worse when you look at the other programs that matter for Great Lakes restoration, particularly funding for upgrading the region’s crumbling sewer and water infrastructure.  There, the House committee is proposing to reduce FY 11 funding (from FY 10 levels) for upgrading sewer systems by 67 percent – a reduction of roughly $494 million to the Great Lakes states. The President’s budget for FY 12 is a bit better, but still a significant drop: a 26% reduction from current levels, or approximately a $192 million cut for the Great Lakes states.

Political: The news here is a bit better. The Great Lakes Regional Initiative clearly has some powerful champions on both sides of the aisle and in the White House.  The House Appropriations Committee (controlled by the Republican caucus) could have slashed Great Lakes funding even more, but thanks to the popularity of Great Lakes restoration with both Republicans and Democrats and requests for continued funding by powerful members of both parties in the Great Lakes delegation, the committee held the line at $225 million for FY 11. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Great Lakes states have enormous electoral importance in the upcoming 2012 elections, Likewise, in this atmosphere of draconian budget cuts, the President could have cut Great Lakes funding in his FY 12 budget below $300 million, but he chose to come in at $350 million. While low, that’s still a substantial commitment to the Great Lakes.

What this means is that support for Great Lakes restoration remains strong for both parties – and we may have a chance to increase the FY 11 and FY 12 numbers in the Senate (and even the House) before this is all over. We’ll need those increases not just for GLRI funding, but also for modernizing old sewer systems.

Economic: Undoubtedly, the budget cuts are going to cost the Great Lakes region jobs – tens of thousands of jobs. A Brookings Institution study (pdf) documented that for every dollar spent on Great Lakes restoration, the region receives between two and four dollars of economic value. So reducing Great Lakes restoration funding by $250 million results in a loss of economic value of between $500 million and $1 billion for the region. In terms of jobs, just considering the cuts the House proposes in funding for sewer repairs means loss of roughly 22,000 jobs for Great Lakes states (pdf).

Ecological: For the Great Lakes themselves, these budgets present some real challenges. There’s an enormous backlog of work to restore the Great Lakes – to clean up toxic hotspots, restore wetlands, stop invasive species, and repair crumbling sewers and drinking water systems. In FY 10 alone, approximately 1100 projects (out of 1,400) went unfunded. And in FY 11, NO projects have been funded because the budget is stalled, and under any scenario, far fewer projects will be funded this year…. Meaning that Great Lakes cleanup will be delayed, take longer, and ultimately cost more.

Unfortunately, there’s more bad news in the budget that has nothing to do with funding. The House proposal contains a number of riders to constrain EPA’s ability to do its job. One of them would stop EPA from being able to protect the nation’s wetlands. That will be particularly harmful for the Great Lakes. Wetlands not only serve as critical habitat for fish and wildlife; they also are incredibly effective filters for pollution – the kidneys of the Great Lakes.

Our region has lost over 50 percent of its wetlands already and under the GLRI will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to restore them. But we’re losing ground if existing wetlands are being destroyed faster than we can construct new ones. And that’s what will happen under the rider presently in the House budget proposal.

Bottom line: The hill we have to climb to bring back the health of the Great Lakes just got longer and steeper.