Veteran environmental activist Lana Pollack was among a small group of Great Lakes advocates who met with Michigan philanthropist Peter M. Wege in 2004 to map out a plan for restoring the lakes.
Pollack, who is now is a U.S. Commissioner on the International Joint Commission, said she never imagined that Great Lakes restoration efforts would achieve so much in less than a decade.
“I didn’t expect the level of success that’s been achieved,” Pollack said Wednesday at the 8th annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Cleveland.
So what has been accomplished over the past decade? Consider:
• Mr. Wege’s initial $5 million investment, which established the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, played a major role in President Obama and Congress allocating $1 billion to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
• An additional $2 billion in federal and state funds has been allocated to municipal sewer upgrades, which has reduced discharges of untreated sewage into the Great Lakes.
• The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, through a variety of programs, has dredged 5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from Great Lakes Areas of Concern.
• The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has funded more than 1,000 projects aimed at cleaning up toxic sediments; reducing polluted runoff, improving nearshore health and combating invasive species such as Asian carp and Phragmites.
• By 2013, toxic sediment cleanups and habitat restoration work will be completed at four Great Lakes Areas of Concern: the Ashtabula River in Ohio; the River Raisin in Michigan; the Sheboygan River in Wisconsin; and White Lake in Michigan.
• By the end of 2014, five more Great Lakes Areas of Concern cleanups will be completed: Waukegan Harbor in Illinois; Deer Lake in Michigan; the St. Marys River in Michigan; Manistique Harbor in Michigan; at the St. Clair River in Michigan.
• The National Park Service has removed the invasive reed Phagmites from 2,500 acres of land in national parks and lakeshores around the lakes. That’s equivalent to 1,875 football fields.
Despite all of this progress, much work remains: There are 26 Great Lakes Areas of Concerns on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes; Phragmites is spreading rapidly around the lakes; Asian carp are on the verge of invading Lake Michigan and Lake Erie; toxic algae blooms are wreaking havoc on Lake Erie; and cladophora algae blooms have killed more than 80,000 Great Lakes birds since 1999.
The Great Lakes Regional Collaborative estimated in 2004 that fully restoring the Great Lakes would cost $20 billion. The federal government has provided unprecedented levels of funding for Great Lakes programs in recent years, but much more money is needed.
The longer we wait to address the problems facing the lakes, the more difficult and expensive the job becomes.
Regardless of who is our next president, he must make Great Lakes restoration a top priority. The lakes, after all, provide drinking water for 30 million and are the backbone of one of the world’s largest regional economies.
Here’s how you can help: Ask the presidential candidate you support to sign the “Great Lakes Protection and Restoration Candidate Pledge.” Read the full pledge here.