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Right now we’re watching a really bad petroleum-based horror story play out in the Gulf of Mexico. All things considered, this is a really good ecosystem, even though it has known some hard knocks, like being home to the world’s largest marine dead zone, thanks to all the chemical fertilizers and semi-treated sewage that our great heartland has flushed down the Mississippi River for decades. Where the zones aren’t dead, the Gulf and its coast have been one of our hemisphere’s most productive marine habitats. This foodweb with delectable species supports not just the fishing and restaurant trade, but pelicans, dolphins, sea turtles and countless other living creatures large and small. Where the water meets the land, nature has given us mangroves, islands, emerald beaches – all pretty splendid stuff, and remarkable habitat.
If, in casual conversation, I were to turn to you and say, “OK, you have a month to carefully identify, consider, and recommend all the major elements of a framework that two nations will use to protect the water quality of the largest freshwater ecosystem in the known galaxy and by the way, that framework should be designed to last a few decades or more” you would laugh at me out of incredulity, or ask if this was some wacky reality show to boost summer ratings, or you would tell me to come back in two years after I’d secured a grant to help fund you to do this well and ask you then. But, none of those responses will change the fact that the people of the United States and Canada (and any other gentle observers on the water planet) will have until June 21st to provide their ideas, concerns, strategies, O-M-Gs and whatever else constitutes “input” into the ongoing re-negotiation process between the U.S. and Canada. Then, the negotiating team will begin to re-write the binational framework to protect the waters of the Great Lakes ecosystem. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is the public declaration of the shared goals, objectives and strategies of two great democracies for safeguarding the vital capacity of one of the world’s most important ecosystems. So maybe, just maybe, we don’t need to rush this. I’m not saying it isn’t urgent that we bring this framework into the realities of 21st Century environmental threats and challenges – that, we desperately need to do, and rapidly.
The Detroit River experienced massive winter duck kills due to oil pollution in the 1940s and 1950s when tens of thousands of waterfowl would die at a time. From 1946-1948, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare estimated that 5.9 million gallons of oil and other petroleum products were released untreated into the Detroit and Rouge rivers each year. It is generally accepted that one gallon of oil is enough to pollute one million gallons of water. That means that there was enough oil being discharged into the Detroit and Rouge rivers annually at this time to pollute virtually the entire western basin of Lake Erie, including all Michigan, Ohio and Ontario waters. 1960s
During the 1960s, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration (the predecessor of EPA) characterized the Detroit River as one of the most polluted rivers in the United States and opened a laboratory (i.e., Large Lakes Research Station) on the island of Grosse Ile to monitor environmental quality.