10/26/2009 - In the summer of 1936, Cleveland hosted the Great Lakes Exposition. In the throes of the Great Depression, it was an event with bazaars, rides, art, music and other attractions, designed both to commemorate the city's centennial anniversary and to revitalize the Sixth City. Today, as we again find ourselves in a foreboding economic climate, the lake that lapped at the edges of the expo 70 years ago could play an integral role in the region's impending economic recovery.
We in the Great Lakes Basin have a rare luxury: a president acquainted with our waterways and conscious of their importance to the people, our culture and our livelihood. The lakes' 5,500 cubic miles make up 90 percent of the country's fresh water, providing 35 million people with drinking water, while commercial and sport fishing bring $4 billion to the region every year. So when invasive species, sewage, farm runoff and other hazards mar this indispensable resource, it impacts us directly. It would serve us well, then, to manage, protect and restore the lakes to the very best of our ability.
Right now, we're far from that goal.
To date, 188 invasive species have established themselves in the Great Lakes, costing the region hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Bottom-dwelling fish outcompete native sport fish for food, harming the sport-fishing industry; zebra mussels clog water intakes for water treatment and power plants, requiring expensive maintenance; and carp degrade wetland areas, damaging waterfowl populations and the hunting economy.
This year was one of the worst in memory for harmful algae and bacterial blooms. Nutrients in runoff from farms and lawns, consumer products washed down the drain, and wastewater treatment plant effluents fuel huge masses of algae and bacteria, the latter of which are often toxic to people and pets. These blooms can consume quantities of oxygen great enough to significantly enlarge the natural dead zone in Lake Erie, a part of the lake without enough oxygen to sustain aquatic life. And algae, too, drain the economy — Toledo alone spends $3,000 to $4,000 per day on filtration to combat the blooms.
Unfortunately, 20 agencies — including the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — now carry out 140 laws affecting the nation's fresh and saline water resources, with little coordination among them. At best, this creates confusion. And at worst, it results in policies and actions that can harm the overall health of the Great Lakes and oceans.
Recent news, however, indicates progress. States and agencies in the Great Lakes region have come together to plan for a better future for America's "Third Coast," and Congress is on the verge of seriously funding the effort. Such an investment means both jobs and a much-needed boost for commerce that depends on a clean and healthy waterway.
Moreover, President Barack Obama has assembled an Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force to recommend a comprehensive policy to protect and restore ocean and Great Lakes ecosystems. From 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday, the task force will hold a public meeting at the Marriott Downtown at Key Center, 127 Public Square, Cleveland, giving an opportunity not only to voice approval of our regional process but to support extending such overarching efforts to all our aquatic ecosystems and the multiple agencies that care for them.
Lake Erie provided the backdrop for the 1936 celebration of Cleveland. Today, the lake could prove a boon for Ohio, with restoration efforts providing a short-term economic boost, while revitalizing traditional commercial activities, like fishing and tourism.
A unifying, cohesive national policy on oceans and waterways — and proper funding — would help restore and improve management of the Great Lakes and our marine resources. It's a necessary, common-sense investment that will pay dividends for Ohio and the nation, providing us with an important step toward attaining the bounty and beauty of a healthy Lake Erie.
Tom Bullock of Lakewood is the Ohio representative for the Pew Environment Group.