Post-Tribune staff report
From battling giant carp to removing human waste from drinking water, the federal government is still the major player in plans to clean up the Great Lakes.
But state and local governments have shown that they also have an important role in protecting the Western Hemisphere’s largest supply of fresh water.
Kay Nelson, the environmental director of the Northwest Indiana Forum Inc., was one of more than 1,500 representatives of government and nongovernment agencies who worked together during the past year to draft a comprehensive strategy for the Great Lakes. At a time when desert dwellers salivate over the thought of buying Great Lakes water, and polluted fish poison pregnant women, the issue becomes a personal one for people in Lake and Porter counties, local environmentalists say.
“Anything that keeps attention focused on the Great Lakes is a positive for Northwest Indiana,” Nelson said.
More and more, that sort of local thinking about a national issue is why mayors, tribal leaders and governors are stepping up the push to reverse decades of lax policy.
Their effort, called the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, pulled together and prioritized ideas for improving the lakes.
“I think it easily could have flown apart if not for the work of the state and local representatives,” said Chris Grubb, a coordinator at the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office.
It works best, say those involved, with both a local and national focus on the issue.
Wading through federal requirements can be too cumbersome for cities to act broadly on their own, Gary Mayor Scott King says.
“There’s no money and no coordination; that’s what’s frustrating,” he said.
The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy, signed Dec. 12 in Chicago, outlines a 15-year strategy for cleaning up and restoring the Great Lakes and their surroundings.
The next day, the governors of eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces signed an agreement to prevent new or increased water withdrawals from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin.
An update of the Great Lakes Charter, a 1985 agreement, it also requires states and provinces to implement water conservation programs.
Now it’s up to state and provincial legislatures to pass laws implementing that agreement.
States and cities also will play a major role in the Great Lakes cleanup effort.
For example, the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy says aging or inadequate sewage-treatment systems are one of the major causes of contamination.
It estimates that nearly $14 billion could be needed over the next five years — more than half of that from the federal government — to improve sewage treatment systems.
But Tom Easterly, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said some cities have found that paying for their own sewer system improvements is less costly than waiting for state or federal help.
State or federal support require time- and money-consuming reviews, reports and studies.
“The cheapest way to do it is simply to pay for it yourself,” Easterly said.
Cities have found, he said, that citizens are willing to pay higher sewage fees if that results in cleaner waterways.
With Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, King was part of a 2004 White House meeting that preceded the Great Lakes collaboration.
When the collaboration agreement was signed, a group of governors and mayors were ready with a list of priorities:
Passing a national law to prevent non-native species from invading the Great Lakes, and funding efforts to complete a barrier to keep the voracious Asian carp from swimming through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and into Lake Michigan.
The proposal suggests $26.25 million in the federal budget for those efforts. It says states are spending an estimated $3.5 million a year already, while industries and cities spend $70 million a year removing one invader, zebra mussels, from their water intakes.
The Michigan legislature took the lead last year, Grubb said, by passing legislation designed to keep invasive species from getting into the Great Lakes through ships’ ballast water.
Increased spending — $50 million in the next fiscal year, the mayors and governors proposed — to help cities and towns upgrade their sewage treatment plants.
Increasing federal funding to clean up heavily contaminated Great Lakes rivers and harbors, such as the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal and the Grand Calumet River in Northwest Indiana.
The current federal budget contains $24 million; the governors and mayors propose $54 million. State and local governments typically have a smaller share in the cost of those cleanup projects.
Greater local efforts to reduce toxic chemicals from getting into the Great Lakes. Those include collecting more household hazardous wastes, reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and collecting mercury-containing products.
“States, tribes and local governments recognize that much of the work to reduce toxic pollutant loading into the Great Lakes will necessarily occur at the local level,” the proposal from the mayors and governors says.
Allocating $28.5 million in the federal budget — and matching that with the same amount of nonfederal money — to help restore 100,000 acres of wetlands.
Most of those proposals rely heavily on federal funding, or on legislation by Congress.
Some environmentalists became discouraged in October when an EPA document said the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration should not rely on additional federal spending.
But Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said Congress doesn’t necessarily follow the administration’s wishes.
“I don’t believe federal funding for Great Lakes protection is dead,” he said. “At the end of the day, the administration doesn’t control the purse strings; Congress does.”