Federal, State Officials Release Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy

The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration has released a draft strategy, estimated to cost $20 billion, to restore and protect the Great Lakes ecosystem.

At the "Summit I" event in Duluth, Minn., senior representatives of the collaboration -- EPA Assistant Administrator Benjamin Grumbles, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson, Superior, Wis., Mayor David Ross and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Tribal Chairman Frank Ettawageshik -- presented the strategy for public comment.

In December 2004, President Bush signed an executive order directing EPA to lead a regional collaboration of national significance for the Great Lakes. The collaboration is a unique partnership of key members from federal, state and local governments, tribes and stakeholders for the purpose of developing a strategic plan to restore and protect the lakes.

"The unique nature of these majestic lakes and their role in the cultural, economic and environmental well-being of our nation requires us to take bold action in their defense," said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson. "Working separately, environmental progress is limited. This collaborative strategy, bringing together resources and ideas from our partners, is the next step in ensuring the Great Lakes remain an international treasure -- forever open to trade and tourism, and providing a healthy ecosystem for its surrounding communities."

"This is the summer of the Great Lakes -- an unprecedented opportunity to ensure that they are protected and restored for our children and grandchildren," Doyle said. "Most importantly, we recognize that immediate and aggressive action is needed. Hundreds have taken part in this collaboration and we invite the public to help us identify the steps that must be taken now and in coming years."

More than 1,500 people from government and nongovernmental organizations participated in the six-month effort to draft the strategy. Teams worked on eight critical environmental priorities including aquatic invasive species, habitat conservation and species management, near-shore waters and coastal areas, areas of concern, non-point sources, toxic pollutants, sound information base and representative indicators and sustainability. The reports of these teams form the basis for the draft action plan. They include recommendations for action and focus both on the long-term restoration of the Great Lakes and on the steps that must be taken over the next five years to most effectively achieve results.

The key recommendations crafted by each strategy team are:

1. Immediate action to stop the introduction of more aquatic invasive species (AIS) can prevent significant future ecological and economic damage to the Great Lakes. The steps needed include:

  • Passage of comprehensive federal AIS legislation.
  • Prevention of AIS introductions by ships through ballast water and other means.
  • Stopping invasions of species through canals and waterways.
  • Restricting trade in live organisms.
  • Establishing a program for rapid response and management.
  • Education and outreach.

2. The plants and animals of the Great Lakes need habitat in order to survive in the future, and there is a need for significantly more habitat conservation and species management. The recommendations focus on:

  • Native fish communities in open waters and near shore habitats.
  • Wetlands.
  • Riparian (streams) habitats in tributaries to the Great Lakes.
  • Coastal shore and upland habitats.

3. The near shore waters and the coastal areas are the region's largest source of drinking water and experience a variety of recreational activities. To minimize the risk to human health resulting from contact with near shore waters, actions needed include:

  • Major improvements in wet weather discharge controls from combined and sanitary sewers.
  • Identify and control releases from indirect sources of contamination.
  • Implement a "risk-based approach" to manage recreational water.
  • Protect sources of drinking water.
  • Improve the drinking water infrastructure.

In order to solve these problems, full funding of the state revolving funds for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure is needed, along with a new grant program.

4. The United States identified the 31 most contaminated locations on the Great Lakes under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with Canada more than 15 years ago. None of them have been restored to date. To remedy this situation, a dramatic acceleration of the cleanup process at these areas of concern (AOC) is needed. The actions recommended are:

  • Amend the Great Lakes Legacy Act to increase funding and streamline the process.
  • Improve federal, state and local capacity to manage the AOC cleanup.
  • Create a federal-state AOC coordinating committee to work with local and tribal interests to speed cleanups.
  • Promote clean treatment and disposal technologies as well as better beneficial use and disposal options.

5. Nonpoint sources of pollution contribute significantly to problems in the areas of concern, as well as to other locations in the Great Lakes, including the open waters. Actions to address these problems include:

  • Wetland restoration.
  • Restoration of buffer strips.
  • Improvement of cropland soil management.
  • Implementation of comprehensive nutrient and manure management plans for livestock operations.
  • Improvements to the hydrology in watersheds.

6. Toxic pollutants continue to stress the Great Lakes ecosystem, posing threats to human and wildlife health. Persistent toxic substances such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) remain present in fish at levels that warrant advisories and restrict consumption throughout the basin. To address this ongoing problem, actions are needed to:

  • Reduce and virtually eliminate the discharge of mercury, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides and other toxic substances to the Great Lakes.
  • Prevent new toxic substances from entering the Great Lakes.
  • Institute a comprehensive research, surveillance and forecasting capability.
  • Create consistent, accessible and easy to understand fish consumption advisories throughout the basin.
  • Enlist the general public in efforts to reduce the generation and use of toxics substances throughout the Great Lakes.

7. With a resource as large and complex as the Great Lakes ecosystem, it is essential to have a sound information base and representative indicators to understand what is happening in the system. This information must then be communicated to the public, to decision makers and all others involved. To improve over the current situation, the following actions are needed:

  • Coordinate monitoring, information management, representative indicators, research and communications under a coordinating council.
  • Support the U.S. Integrated Earth Observation System (IEOS) and the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) as key components of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) .
  • Double funding for Great Lakes research over the next five years.
  • Establish a regional information management infrastructure.
  • Create a Great Lakes communications workgroup to manage scientific and technical information.

8. Ensuring the long term sustainability of the Great Lakes resource will require a number of significant changes in the way we approach such things as land use, agriculture and forestry, transportation, industrial activity, and many others. To start this process:

  • Adapt and maintain programs that promote sustainability across all sectors.
  • Align governance to enhance sustainable planning and management of resources.
  • Build outreach that brands the Great Lakes as an exceptional and competitive place to live, work, invest and play.

The draft strategy still must be endorsed by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration members. Following a 60-day public comment period, including five town-hall style meetings, the collaborations leadership will consider the draft recommendations and public comments as they develop a final strategy for approval by the collaboration membership. The final strategy is due to be released in Chicago in December 2005.

To read recommendations of the strategy teams and for more information about the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration go to http://www.epa.gov/grtlakes/collaboration. To comment on the draft strategy, go to http://www.glrc.us.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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