New Hope for Great Lakes Recovery

02-01-2006 // Roger Di Silvestro

PEOPLE WORKING to protect the Great Lakes--faced with threats ranging from pollution to invasive species to water withdrawal--made two huge leaps forward in December.

First, on December 12, federal, state, tribal and municipal governments joined with citizens of the region behind a single blueprint for restoring and protecting the lakes. "The Great Lakes Restoration Plan comes just in time," says Andy Buchsbaum, director of NWF's Great Lakes office and cochairman of the Healing Our Waters--Great Lakes Coalition, which unites private citizens in the fight to save the lakes. "The Great Lakes are sick and their immune system is damaged, but if we quickly take the actions outlined in this plan we can heal the lakes."

Unveiled by Environmental Protection Agency administrator Stephen Johnson, Ohio governor Robert Taft, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, tribal chairman Frank Ettawageshik of the Little Traverse Bay Band of the Odawa and U.S. Representatives Mark Kirk and Vernon Ehlers, the restoration plan calls for $20 billion in federal, state, local and private investments in such measures as modernizing waste-treatment systems and restoring wetlands and other vital habitat. The plan also calls for new policy actions, such as preventing oceangoing vessels from discharging aquatic invasive species into the lakes. "The next step in implementing the plan is to obtain funding," says Reg Gilbert, senior coordinator for Great Lakes United, a private group. "The mayors, tribes, governors and members of Congress have each independently recommended significant new funding next year to implement the plan--at least a net increase of $300 million over this year's federal budget for the Great Lakes ecosystem. Now we are waiting for the administration's commitment for significant new funding."

Second, on December 13, Great Lakes governors and premiers met in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to sign agreements that yield the most fundamental change in the past century to the region's water laws. "These agreements close the door to water diversions and put our house in order by protecting us from unwise water use within the basin," says Molly Flanagan, Great Lakes water resources advocate for NWF's Great Lakes office. "For the first time, they establish the protection of the ecosystem as a priority across the basin."

The proposed Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact implements a strong and effective water-management system, including protections against water diversions out of the basin and unwise water use within the basin. The compact also would allow officials of the Great Lakes region to maintain control over lake water in the face of growing demand from across the nation and the world. "The region's leaders have come together to do what is best for the Great Lakes and local citizens," Flanagan says. "The compact ensures that the water will be available for the people and wildlife that depend on it and will remain protected for generations to come."

The Great Lakes are a critical resource for the region, providing homes, food, recreation and economic sustainability for the millions of people who live within its watersheds. The agreements ensure that every Great Lakes state and province will have the same rational protections across the Great Lakes basin. "The Great Lakes governors and premiers have demonstrated visionary leadership in making this firm commitment to protecting the Great Lakes," Flanagan says.

Encompassing eight national parks, the Great Lakes basin contains almost 20 percent of the world's surface fresh water, supplies drinking water to more than 40 million U.S. and Canadian residents and supports industry, agriculture, maritime trade and a world-class fishery.

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