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Behind the headlines about the budget fight and cooling the president's war fever, this last Congress quietly ground out a menu of legislation protecting America's most precious material resource -- Great Lakes water.

One reason this outstanding achievement of the 101st Congress got little national notice is that water is a very dull subject -- unless you don't have any as in the case of California, or if it is running out on you as it is in the prairie states.

Or if it is poisoned, the way it is in some eddies of the Niagara River and bays of the Great Lakes.

If fish could vote, the members of this last Congress would hold their jobs for life.

Fish were among the missing, in a relative sense, when most of these Senate and House members were in grade or high school. And that may have something to do with their attitudes.

Gerard F. McGowan, a Buffalo stockbroker, recalls that when he was a high school rower in the 1940s, "you'd see dead dogs, and almost anything else floating around in the (Black Rock) channel and the harbor." So heavy was the oil slick, anything could be lubricated just by dipping it into the canal.

Things weren't much better in the early 1960s. All levels of government had conservation officials. But they couldn't do much in the face of the absolute veto power industry had under John Kennedy, Nelson Rockefeller and the Erie County Board of Supervisors and Ed Rath Sr., the county's first executive.

Huge islands of gunk, looking like fat skiffs of Styrofoam, wafted along the laminated Buffalo River.

A lot of people can take credit for what Congress and the Bush administration did for the Great Lakes this year. None of it would have happened were it not for a Buffalo jeweler and environmentalist named Stan Spisiak, and writers like The News' Paul MacClennan, the late Joe Glaser of the former Courier-Express, free-lancers like Bill Hilts and toilers at the Great Lakes Laboratory set up by Buffalo State College.

These reformers and their counterparts around the country functioned almost like an underground in the early '60s. The print press set the agenda, and did all -- all -- the political spadework. As a result, a whole generation of Democrats got elected on an environmental platform.

Fortunately for Buffalo and the lakes, much of this hard work and sentiment has found a home in Rep. Henry J. Nowak, D, raised in Buffalo's Riverside section not far from the Niagara. Nowak has been chairman of the House Public Works Subcommittee on Water Resources for the last three congresses.

Nowak has made his subcommittee the focal point for all efforts to restore the lakes to their original crystal purity.

Nowak's interest in cleaning up the lakes and stocking them with fish borders on the obsessive. But first things first. Operating on the theory that reform begins at home, Nowak in the 1970s talked the government into spending hundreds of millions on treating the Buffalo's sewage and that of its suburbs.

Largely thanks to Nowak, the Buffalo area has received more than 15 percent of all sewer project funds allocated to lakes cities.

In 1985 Nowak was a key factor in sponsoring legislation barring the water-hungry Midwest from draining lakes water. As subcommittee chairman, he has steadily nudged the powerful Army Corps of Engineers into a more pro-active role on lakes water pollution investigation and contracting.

This year saw the enactment of 10 bills, half of which were the direct result of Nowak's intervention. To call them unprecedented would be an understatement. We'll dispense with the titles of the bills and instead sketch what they do:

One law puts teeth and enforcement deadlines into hortatory resolutions calling on the U.S. and Canada to purify their boundary waters. This same statute calls for studies on how pollutants harm wildlife and us. Another law impedes new construction along the lakes' shorelines. The package also permits $50 million to be spent on advancing the lakes as a magnet for commercial and game fishing, and raises the possibility that a new U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service office will be opened in Buffalo.

In addition to the zebra mussel control legislation, Nowak's package included provisions to clean up Woodlawn Beach, and expand the Small Boat Harbor.

Nowak sees this comprehensive program of purification and protection as the keystone in making Buffalo's waterfront commercially viable again.

There's much more to it. Long after the last gun is fired over the oil riches of the Middle East, Buffalo's unlimited supply of fresh, and prayerfully, clean water, will be the foundation on which the revival of the community's entire economy will be based.

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