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New approach needed to protect Great Lakes

WASHINGTON – Great Lakes states and provinces are bracing for another year of disappearing wetlands, docks where boats can’t berth, beaches stretching endlessly toward the horizon and strange new forms of pollution.

As a leader of the Great Lakes Congressional Task Force, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, has soldiered hard to advance the Water Quality Act and jawboned Ohio into cutting in half its planned extractions from Lake Erie.

The National Wildlife Federation keeps plugging for lakes cleanup funding. But it is working off an old system of binational treaties and interstate compacts that have holes in them as large as Asia’s Aral Sea. Once the world’s fourth-largest lake, it has lost 80 percent of its volume.

When the ice goes, millions of Americans and Canadians can see, and often smell, proof that the century-old model of protecting this resource isn’t working at all.

Patchwork amendments to a 1904 U.S.-Canadian treaty like the 2008 St. Lawrence Seaway Compact allow extractions for bottled water and let counties and cities draw water from the system without returning any. That’s on top of the 2 billion gallons Chicago takes every day.

Nearly every year, somebody conjures a new way to draw water from the lakes: Like Ontario Hydro’s massive new diversion tunnel at Niagara Falls, which authorities claim, bafflingly, has no influence on the level of the river or Lake Erie.

A Canadian author and activist, Maud Barlow, and her Council of Canadians have a better answer. And that requires us to reject two bad ideas: 1) That the lakes belong to industry and influential agencies like Ontario Hydro and the State Power Authority, and 2) that the water in the lakes is inexhaustible.

The Council of Canadians is proposing that the Great Lakes system, its tributaries and aquifers and the St. Lawrence basin be considered an endangered binational “Commons” owned by everybody, certainly not by corporate or government power structures, which have failed to save the lakes from new threats.

The buildup of plastic dumping in the lakes, and exposure of same on newly exposed shorelines, result in up to 1.7 million small plastic particles per square mile on the bed of Lake Erie, according to a new University of Wisconsin study.

Jay Burney, founder of Greenwatch-Friends of Times Beach, reports scientists have found that humans are ingesting microscopic particles of plastics from fish. These plastics can carry health risks, “volatiles” like PCBs.

Barlow is on a six-month speaking tour, her second in two years, in the United States and Ontario. She will speak at Monroe Community College in Rochester on April 25.

The Council of Canadians’ “Commons” approach is like the one that fostered the environmental movement a half century ago: grass-roots, anticipating stone-like resistance from centers of power. Cities, villages, towns and counties of the Great Lakes basin would one by one pass a declaration that the system is an irreplaceable biological resource of drinking water and earth-friendly uses.

Schools and university centers could also pass such resolutions. As in the 1960s, the movement can become a political force, prompting action by Congress and Parliament for an enforceable new framework to forever protect the lakes from the forces that are polluting and drying up water resources around the world. Here’s how the council voices its aim:

“Governments must protect the water and its uses for all generations in a way that ensures that clean water is available for drinking, fishing, health ecosystems, as well as for agriculture, transportation, industry and power generation. Water management, regulation and pricing must be consistent with principles of the public good, respect for human rights and Earth rights.”