Group hugs and campfire songs won’t solve Great Lakes problems in 2014

Commentary

Gary Wilson

By Gary Wilson
Great Lakes Echo

Lana Pollack’s message was clear:

Voluntary programs to induce farmers to keep algae-causing phosphorous out of Lake Erie are “clearly failing.”

Pollack is the U.S. chair of the International Joint Commission, the group that advises the U.S. and Canada on trans-border water issues. Last week on a media call she briefed reporters on the commission’s report on how to combat harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie.

It is one of the biggest problems facing the Great Lakes and especially Lake Erie, the smallest and most vulnerable of the lakes. And Pollack and the IJC report made it clear that mandatory phosphorous limits must be enacted.   

That hasn’t been the stance from everywhere.

In 2011, then USEPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said combating algae blooms would be a top priority for the agency. Since, the EPA has focused on encouraging farmers to voluntarily use best management practices and has sponsored study of the issue.

Pollack said the report leaves little doubt what the two governments need to do to save Lake Erie: phosphorous runoff needs to be reduced by 39-46 per cent by 2022.

“It’s time for governments at all levels to put the lake on a diet by setting targets and achieving real reductions,” Pollack said as reported by the Associated Press.

Pollack emphasized that “the quality of the science in the report provides the basis for action and the evidence to support action is clear.”

chicagoviewKumbaya fail

The commission’s report and Pollack’s candor must be music to the ears of Ann Alexander, a senior attorney in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Chicago office.

She recently equated the EPA’s approach to the algae issue as “Kumbaya fail.”

Her point is that the “let’s just all collaborate” strategies focused on voluntary phosphorous programs have “entirely failed.”

Alexander has been working on the algae issue since 2010.

She implored the EPA to drop its “group hug approach to a problem that cries out for action.”

What now as the season of ice ebbs and that of algae blooms approaches?

The International Joint Commission forwarded its report to the U.S. and Canadian governments. Neither of them should be surprised by the content.

I suspect Alexander isn’t waiting by the phone for a call from the EPA seeking advice.

Landmark year

This is a landmark year for the Great Lakes with three big issues in play:

  • The Waukesha, Wis. long-awaited request to divert Great Lakes water should be sent to the other states and the two Canadian provinces. That decision and how it is determined will go a long way toward defining the Great Lakes Compact. Will it have teeth or will Waukesha punch a hole in it for other communities (and states) to march through?
  • The algae report formally puts the two governments on notice about the quality of Lake Erie’s water. The science is clear and more study isn’t necessary. The path of the last three years has failed. Lake Erie’s future may hang in the balance.
  • The Army Corps of Engineers report on keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes landed in January. It gave Congress options and costs. Like the report and agree with its methodology or not, the reports stands as the benchmark and starting point for future action.

For the past four years, funding for the Great Lakes has sucked the air out of the room in the popular media. Every project – worthy or frivolous — has been hailed as evidence that we’re making progress. And it has been the cause célèbre for the region’s politicians who like to hold press conferences with a lake in the background to prove their Great Lakes veracity.

But restoration is puppy pee compared to Waukesha, algae and Asian carp.

And interestingly, neither Waukesha nor algae are about the money. It’s about having the courage and will to make the tough decision that will surely alienate a constituency. Getting those issues wrong will have negative impacts for decades.

It’s easy to show up for press conferences about soft projects that bring federal dollars to your state. It will be less so when the topic is regulating farmers or spending billions to re-plumb the Chicago waterways.

Dithering, political posturing and analysis paralysis won’t serve the Great Lakes well in 2014.

Neither will a group hug and Kumbaya approach.

 

  • Sandy

    We ought to take a lesson from the Chesapeake when they came to realize that dying oyster beds plagued by algae and fifteen years of trying voluntary efforts did not work. The Chesapeake leaders got an executive order from Obama for federal coordination and a TMDL that was completed in little more than a year that created source allocation and a 25% reduction per year per tribuatry for phosphorus, nitrates and sediments. This was in response to a number of law suits about the failuire to act for the Cheapeake waters. Google Cheseapeake tmdl and look at the usepa web site and the coordinated efforts there. Lake Erie deserves the same and the feds need to help lead it and to cooridnate with Canada.

  • Greg

    The Great Lakes Compact for diverting the Great Lakes out of the basin has no teeth to begin with since former Michigan Governor John Engler and his Michigan Republicans arranged to have their Nestle’ Ice Mountain business partner sell the Great Lakes to Arizona, China, and elsewhere. To add insult to the Great Lakes Compact there are specific exemptions by the Republican Governor Snyder administration to have no deposits on their water containers transporting the Great Lakes out of the basin.