By Joel Brammeier of the Lake Michigan Federation
Cooperation between agencies, citizens, and businesses throughout the United States is supporting ecosystem restoration on a grand scale. From the plan to restore the bayous of “America’s Wetland” along coastal Louisiana to the revolutionary initiative repairing decades of damage to the Florida Everglades, citizens of all perspectives recognize that aquatic resources are essential to regional ecology and economy.
The Great Lakes, the largest body of fresh water on the planet, are still in need of such a coordinated solution. The lakes bring a unique set of challenges to the table. In the U.S., jurisdiction spreads across the boundaries of 8 different states. The federal government maintains authority over navigation and policies that impact coasts and wetlands. More uniquely, management of Great Lakes resources demands an international perspective, as issues such as fishery management, water use, and shipping refuse to respect the dotted lines separating Canadian waters from those of the U.S.
A 2003 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) reminded U.S. citizens of the Great Lakes region that much progress has been made in understanding the lakes, but that this has failed to translate into significant measurable activity to restore the lakes and their surrounding ecosystems. Coastal habitats, supporting some of the greatest biological diversity in the Basin, are subject to increasing threats from development. Internationally recognized Areas of Concern and other contaminated sites still require comprehensive cleanup. Ocean ships and unnatural hydrology remain as unchecked sources of aquatic invasive species.
To translate this foundation of research into restoration action, federal legislators introduced bills in 2003 to supply $4 to $6 billion for Great Lakes restoration action. Funds would be spent, with leadership by the states, on projects resulting in real ecological change. The response from the Great Lakes delegation in Congress was overwhelming. Nearly every legislator from the region eventually cosponsored the bill, demonstrating a true commitment to on-the-ground action.
Support from the White House would be imperative for restoration to become a reality. In spring 2004, the administration framed its response to the call by issuing an executive order prompting creation of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration. Then-U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt spent much of the summer traveling the Basin, announcing the collaboration to stakeholders representing various facets of the nearly 200 distinct Great Lakes programs identified by the GAO.
On December 3rd, the first meeting of the collaborative took place in Chicago. The morning was spent with a “who’s who” of U.S. governors and mayors signing a declaration committing to the process. A larger group of stakeholders moved on to the difficult business in the afternoon, kicking off the collaborative in 8 strategy teams charged with crafting action plans around a variety of Great Lakes issues by the end of 2005.
Unfortunately, Administrator Leavitt resigned his EPA post soon after, leaving significant questions about the future of the process. There has been no commitment of new funding for Great Lakes restoration, which some collaboration participants view as a critical gap. Moreover, members of Congress, environmental organizations, and others have been quick to point out that the Great Lakes are in need of new action, not a repackaging of existing programs. Prior to the December 3rd meeting, Great Lakes advocates wrote to former Administrator Leavitt emphasizing the need for “concrete measurable results” in keeping with other federal legislation such as the Clean Water Act.
Several concurrent initiatives are promoting the restoration effort. The National Wildlife Federation and the National Parks Conservation Association will spearhead a $5 million effort to build broad support for Great Lakes restoration. The recent report of the executive-level U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy identifies clear steps that the federal government could take to enhance the quality of our coasts and associated waters. Regardless of which effort tips the scales in the right direction, national support of citizens for real action will be key in bringing legitimate restoration to the Great Lakes.
For more information, contact Joel Brammeier of the Lake Michigan Federation at 312-939-0838×4 or firstname.lastname@example.org.