The federal government has issued a new blueprint for its efforts to restore the Great Lakes, including plans to clean up 10 contaminated rivers and harbors and step up its attack on poisonous algae blooms that coat parts of three lakes each summer.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said last week that the world’s largest freshwater system has just entered an era of unprecedented peril.
He pointed specifically to Aug.2- the day a poisonous algae bloom in Lake Erie knocked out the water supply for nearly 500,000 residents in the Toledo area.
“What happened in Toledo…. It’s the first time the reliability, the sustainability of our safe drinking water was threatened,” Emanuel told a packed conference room at the Shedd Aquarium, which overlooks Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline.
Toledo Mayor Michael Collins called his city’s drinking water crisis a “canary in the coal mine” for all the Great Lakes- and from his statements it is apparent he has not been impressed with the Obama administration’s response.
The federal government’s new blueprint, called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan II, was disclosed by Gina McCarthy, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, at a Chicago meeting of Great Lakes mayors. It builds on a four-year initiative, begun in President Obama’s first term, that has already spent $1.6 billion on more than 2,100 restoration projects on the lakes’ American side. The added initiative, which extends through 2019, is expected to cost roughly the same.
Scientists say the problem is Toledo is tied primarily to an increase in a highly potent form of phosphorus washing off agriculture lands and into the waters of western lake Erie. Another factor is climate related- big early spring rains are becoming more common, and they flush fertilizer-rich phosphorus off fields before it can be absorbed into the crops of corn and soy beans grown on the western end of lake Erie.
Invasive zebra and quagga mussels also play a role in the algae outbreaks. The invasive mollusks that arrived as stowaways aboard oversea freighters in the 1980s now blanket the bottom of Lake Erie. The mussels are a problem because they filter from the water healthy species of algae but do not eat the toxic blue green algae. The means that when algae blooms occur on Lake Erie today they are much more likely to be toxic.
“There are areas with the worst legacies of toxic pollution in the days before laws like the Clean Water Act,” Susan Hedman, the E.P.A.’s regional administrator for the Great lakes regions, said in a telephone interview.
“In a very large ecosystem like the Great lakes, it’s difficult to measure progress on a yearly scale, or even a five-year scale,” Ms. Hedman said. “But we’ve been able to accelerate cleanups, accelerate restoration and move the process forward in ways that in the past were unimaginable.”
The government says the project is the largest conservation program in the nation’s
history, involving 15 federal agencies and the eight Great Lakes states.
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