Great Lakes Program Providing Hope to People, Wildlife

6th annual restoration conference focuses on maintatining progress on Great Lakes restoration, action on Asian carp

10-01-2010 // Jeff Alexander

In suburban Buffalo, on a site that once housed a massive steel mill, eight large wind turbines that tower above the Lake Erie shoreline have become striking symbols of how the Great Lakes region is changing.

The Steel Winds turbines generate 20 megawatts of clean energy, enough to power about 6,000 average homes.

It is a relatively small wind farm. But the fact that the Steel Winds project was built on the former Bethlehem Steel site, a contaminated 1,600-acre parcel on the shores of Lake Erie, reflects a movement by Great Lakes cities to stimulate economic growth by restoring natural resources.

The recent Great Lakes Restoration Conference, held Sept. 22-24 in Buffalo, demonstrated that many community leaders and elected officials believe a healthy Great Lakes ecosystem is critical to resurrecting the region’s economic might.

“There is an absolute consensus … that as go the water resources, so goes the economy of this region,” Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster said at the opening session of the Sixth Annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference.

About 300 people from across the region attended the conference, which was organized and hosted by the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. The National Wildlife Federation is one of the coalition’s co-leaders.

The conference was the first restoration conference held since federal agencies began distributing $475 million from President Obama’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative— a federal program that funds solutions to the most urgent problems facing the Lakes, including invasive species, toxic pollution, habitat destruction and polluted run-off from cities and farms.

“I don’t think any of us could imagine we’d be sitting here today, seeing hundreds of millions of dollars going to Great Lakes restoration – on the ground – and that the health of the Great Lakes would be truly in our hands,” said Andy Buchsbaum, co-chair of the coalition and regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center.

Progress in Restoring Lakes, Fish, Wildlife
The $475 million initiative has been widely credited with re-invigorating a national effort to restore the largest surface fresh-water resource in the world—one that supports an incredible array of fish and wildlife, including bass, walleye, perch, northern pike and lake sturgeon.

“President Obama and the U.S. Congress have given Great Lakes restoration and economic recovery a shot in the arm,” said the National Wildlife Federation’s Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the coalition. “The key is for that support to continue.”

Over the years, the eight-state region of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin has made progress to restore the Lakes.

The conference highlighted many restoration success stories—from dam removal projects to allow fish passage, to wetland restoration projects to provide a home for waterfowl and other wildlife.

Cameron Davis, senior advisor to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, implored conference participants to continue to tout restoration success stories to demonstrate that local efforts are paying off—and that a sustained federal investment was warranted.

We have solutions to restore the Lakes, bring back fish and wildlife populations, and create jobs,” said Skelding. “Now, more than ever, we need Congress and President Obama to act decisively to confront historic and emerging threats to the Lakes, before they get worse and more costly.”

Asian Carp Threat Escalating
A sense of optimism about the future of the Great Lakes was palpable at the conference.  But there was also concern that Asian carp and other invasive species could sabotage the burgeoning restoration efforts.

Buchsbaum lambasted the U.S. Coast Guard’s prolonged effort to enact ballast water treatment standards for transoceanic freighters that enter the Great Lakes through the St. Lawrence Seaway. Ocean freighters have imported 57 invasive species into the lakes, despite government programs that were supposed to solve the problem nearly two decades ago.

“We are completely frustrated by the inability of the Coast Guard to deal with the ballast water issue,” Buchsbaum told a Coast Guard commander at the conference. “We need action and we need it now.”

Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said an Asian carp invasion would be a “huge setback” to restoration efforts. The massive fish are on the brink of entering Lake Michigan via the Chicago Waterway System, a series of artificial canals that reversed the flow of the Chicago River in the late 1800s and linked the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system. 

“There is an extraordinary amount of frustration over the Corps of Engineers’ failure to deal with this problem,” Brammeier said,

The Great Lakes Commission will conduct a $2 million study of how to separate the Chicago Waterway System from Lake Michigan without crippling Chicago’s economy or causing flooding.

“This is a big opportunity to re-engineer the movement of water and goods in the city of Chicago,” said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission. “We’ll get our study done by the end of 2011 and we will come up with options for solving this problem.”

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