Don’t dig a deeper hole for the Great Lakes

February 22, 2013

First do no harm. That’s a maxim for the medical profession – and we should follow it when it comes to responding to Great Lakes crises.

Make no mistake: this crisis is real and scary. In Lake Michigan, for example, the water level is a full 5 feet lower than it was during the record highs of 1987. Five feet! So today you could be standing on a beach with your feet dry, when 25 years ago the water would have been up to your neck.

The low water levels are really socking it to our region’s businesses – cargo ships have to leave freight behind to lighten their loads; marinas are high and dry; fishing boats can’t get through channels. News outlets are taking notice, documenting hardships in Michigan and Wisconsin. As water levels continue to fall, it’s become a national story covered by CNN and National Geographic.

What’s the cause? One of the best analyses is from WBEZ’s Lewis Wallace, who reports on a combination of factors: natural cycles, less precipitation, more evaporation, less ice cover, and the results of dredging in the St. Clair River.

It’s pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that climate change is playing a major role and that while lake levels may rebound, the long term trend is downward.  Precipitation rates, evaporation and ice cover all are climate-driven, and as the air warms, at least the last two (evaporation and ice cover) will only get worse.

So far, the response has been short term actions focused on shipping: more money for dredging harbors and channels. Michigan has freed up $11 million in state funds to pay for more dredging. And then there’s all the money in the national Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund — $6 billion accumulated that has NOT been spent on harbor maintenance because the government has used it to fill in other parts of the budget. There are proposals to use more of that money to dredge.

But it seems to me that “dredge, baby, dredge” isn’t going to solve this problem. Sure, we have to do some emergency dredging. But if lake levels really are trending down, what’s the long term answer? We can’t keep on digging out the lakes or the Great Lakes will begin to look like the Great Canyons. It’s worth remembering that dredging is what helped get us into this mess in the first place – the St. Clair River dredging lowered lake levels by at least an estimated 20 inches.

And what do we do with all of the dredged materials – dump them in the lakes like we do now? That’s making the Lake Erie dead zone larger and more severe.

So here’s an idea: can we flip the solution? Rather than trying to save our shipping only by deepening channels and harbors, can we find a way to raise water levels or at least to slow their decline? That would mean taking actions like regulating lake levels better, conserving more water, restoring wetlands, increasing groundwater infiltration, and reducing the sudden runoff produced by increasing severe storms. Those are not easy and they have their own dangers.

But this approach is worth a much closer look before we dig ourselves into a deeper hole.

The Great Lakes and the fiscal…..slope?

February 8, 2013

I don’t know about you, but after months of reading about fiscal cliffs, sequestration, grand bargains, and a variety of other metaphors for the budget situation in Washington,  I could never figure out what it meant for Great Lakes restoration funding — except that it probably wasn’t good.

 Two days ago, at the Great Lakes Environmental Summit organized in the Capitol by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, I finally began to understand more about how these things all tie together. And I’m going to try to explain it here without botching the whole thing, confusing matters further, or putting everybody to sleep.

 I’ll start at the end: knowing more about this process doesn’t change the forecast for Great Lakes restoration funding. Nobody knows for sure what will happen. But the unity of the region (one staffer said, “bicameral, bipartisan agreement”) increases the odds for the lakes.

 So here’s how I understand it. Normally, the Great Lakes budget is set by appropriations subcommittees in the House and then adjusted in the Senate, based on an allocation given by the full appropriations committee. The appropriations committee number is part of the overall national budget the committee adopts. That budget is modified by the full House and Senate, passed as a budget resolution, signed by the President, and the government is funded for a full year.

 Simple in theory.

 Real life is never that simple, and especially now. For one thing, the appropriations committees have to try to stay within the framework of the Budget Control Act, which Congress passed several years ago (and so can amend in any year’s budget). And the President weighs in with his budget recommendation.

 The result of those two factors by themselves has led to gridlock in the budget process that’s gotten so bad that Congress hasn’t been able to pass a budget resolution, and instead has passed continuing resolutions extending last year’s budget just to keep the government’s doors open.

 But even that is easy compared to what’ s happened in the last year, with sequestration and grand budget deals. Sequestration, a law passed by Congress last year, sets automatic spending cuts for the budget — which essentially sets different limits than the Budget Control Act, and those limits also must be met. And the House Budget Committee wants to make steeper (and different) cuts — which means that yet another budget plan might be passed in the House and adjusted in the Senate.

 The bottom line is that the subcommittees that set the Great Lakes restoration budget won’t even get a number to work with until after all those other deals are worked out.

 When will that happen? March 27 is when the latest continuing budget resolution runs out, and if a new budget isn’t passed by then (or a new continuing resolution enacted), then parts of the government shut down. So that’s a pretty firm date.

 I’ve been told not to get confused by the date sequestration kicks in, which is March 1. Apparently sequestration automatically cuts spending…. until Congress changes the law. So if Congress adopts a budget by March 27, it can undo or redo sequestration.

 That’s the limit of my new-found budget knowledge. I leave you with two takeaways:

  • March 27 is the big deadline unless Congress passes another extension. We’ll have some sort of budget resolution by then.
  • Our chance to weigh in with Congress is between now and March 27 – after that, it may be too late. Most members of Congress probably can’t do anything right now while high-level negotiations are underway, but they can still hear from us that Great Lakes restoration funding is huge priority that needs to be maintained. That way when they do have a chance to act, they’ll be ready.

 One final thought. I heard at the meeting that we’re really not facing a fiscal cliff – it’s more like we’re sliding down a slope than falling over an edge. That makes sense to me. Fiscal slope may not be as dramatic, but tumbling down it still hurts and we still wind up at the bottom unless something is done. Let’s stay at the top.

 

Great Lakes Summit Coming This Summer

January 23, 2013

This could be a big deal for the Great Lakes.

Last week, in the highest profile address he makes all year, the State of the State, Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder called for all the region’s Governors and Premiers to gather this summer on Mackinac Island for a Great Lakes Summit. In his words:

In June, I was proud to be elected the co-chair of the Great Lakes Governor’s Council and what we are going to be doing. I have already invited the other Governors and Premiers, so hopefully we will be holding a session on Mackinac Island, bringing Great Lakes’ Governors and Premiers together, to talk about what, and how, we can do more to protect and enhance and benefit the Great Lakes of our wonderful state, which, we all love. So that’s important.

Snyder telegraphed that he’d be making this announcement in November in a speech he made on energy and the environment. Still, elevating the Great Lakes summit to the State of the State is a welcome development. While we don’t the details yet, it’s a safe bet that key issues like invasive species, the economic benefits of the lakes and funding will be somewhere on the agenda.

So why might this be a major deal for the lakes? Well, let’s look at the history. A summit like this has happened only once before:  thirty years ago, in 1982, convened by Michigan’s Governor Milliken, again on Mackinac Island. The governors met, sponsored resolutions and then afterwards began to work on implementing them.

Those resolutions eventually led to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the Great Lakes Initiative (an amendment to the Clean Water Act), Congressional protections against water diversions, the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, and the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy which has served as the blueprint for over $1 billion in federal investment in the Great Lakes. Some of these took awhile, but the foundations were laid at the Summit meeting in 1982.

So what will come out of this year’s summit?

For one thing, at the very least it will bring the current governors and premiers of the region together for the first time to forge an identity as Great Lakes leaders. In much of the past decade, the Great Lakes region had a remarkably stable group of governors and premiers who saw the value of the Great Lakes to our land and water, to our economy, to our health, and to our quality of life. Their understanding of those issues and their collective identity as Great Lakes leaders helped unify the region and move forward the Compact, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and other unprecedented protections for the lakes.

But the region’s most recent crop of governors has been more exclusively focused on crises in their states. They haven’t come together as a region, and that’s hurt our region’s collective power. This summit could unify them to capture the momentum the Great Lakes enjoyed in the last decade.

I have more ambitious dreams for the summit. Our region’s problems and opportunities more and more bridge the environment and the economy. The Compact and the GLRI show that protecting the Great Lakes is good for our economy. A groundbreaking Brookings Institution study by top economists proved it for all to see.

Our businesses now see the Great Lakes as one of our region’s major competitive advantages. The region’s metro Chambers of Commerce – from all the big Great Lakes cities – have formed their own organization to promote that advantage.

This summit has the opportunity to frame solutions through that perspective – to think of the Great Lakes as the environment and economy working together and not in opposition. Think about it – when economic and ecological systems work together, when the Great Lakes are healthy, isn’t that when our states and our region are most prosperous, most attractive to industry and best for our workers, most pleasing to our residents?

These governors and premiers at this summit are well positioned to make this happen. I hope they see the opportunity and run with it.

Enbridge Oil Pipeline is a Sunken Hazard in the Great Lakes

October 22, 2012

I got a surprise last week after we released our report on the Enbridge oil pipeline that runs along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac:  a national business news story that seemed to imply that Enbridge’s investors seem to be as concerned about the pipeline as we are. NASDAQ put out an article entitled, Safety of Enbridge Mackinac Pipeline Questioned By NWF; Stock Down 1%. And Bloomberg Business came out with “Great Lakes At Risk Of Major Oil Spill, Report Warns”.

After thinking it through, such a business reaction makes sense. The NWF report, Sunken Hazard: Aging oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac, an ever-present threat to the Great Lakes, documents a potentially disastrous plan for the Great Lakes: the expansion of a 20 million gallon a day oil pipeline on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. The report, written by Beth Wallace and Jeff Alexander, reveals a ticking time bomb that threatens the jewels of Michigan and the Great Lakes – the straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Island.

The new report describes a 60-year old pipeline carrying 20 million gallons a day of toxic oil at high temperature and pressure under the Straits of Mackinac. This pipeline is operated by Enbridge, the same company that was responsible for the massive oil spill into the Kalamazoo River two years ago. And now Enbridge is proposing to increase the pumping capacity by 50,000 barrels a day – that’s 2.1 million gallons.

Until now, this pipeline and its proposed expansion have stayed under the radar of the public…and apparently, Enbridge’s investors.

But now they’re seemingly paying attention. As the report details, a major rupture in this pipeline (Line 5) could result in a BP-oil-sized catastrophe in the Great Lakes. That’s a lot of liability. And the company’s record does not inspire confidence that Line 5 is secure or that Enbridge could minimize the damage if it did spring a leak. Enbridge has had 800 pipeline spills and ruptures between 1999 and 2010, including 80 spills in the pipeline system that includes Line 5.

We’ve worked so hard over the past few years to clean up the Great Lakes, and we’ve made enormous progress with Great Lakes restoration funding, the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, and a new binational Great Lakes agreement to protect water quality. That progress would all be thrown away if Enbridge’s Line 5 should rupture.

This is a recipe for disaster. Enbridge cannot be allowed to expand the oil flow in Line 5 – instead, it should replace the line with new pipe to greatly reduce the risk of a leak. That’s a win-win: it’s the right thing to do for the Great Lakes, and it should give Enbridge’s investors some peace of mind.

Crunch Time for Presidential Candidates in the Great Lakes

October 17, 2012

Unified. Bipartisan. Consensus. Common priority.

You rarely hear those words around a presidential election season, especially when they involve something urgent, sometimes controversial, and potentially costly. And you certainly wouldn’t expect them this October, right in the midst of polarizing hundred-million dollar negative ad campaigns.

But that theme of pulling together regardless of party is exactly the message being broadcast right now throughout the Great Lakes, and especially in the presidential swing states. And we’re hearing it from very credible and powerful sources: editorial boards for major media outlets.

Editorials Demanding Candidates Commit to Great Lakes

Editorial after editorial are calling for the candidates to put aside their differences and pledge to restore the Great Lakes and protect them from threats like Asian carp. Editorial boards in cities across the region are demanding that both presidential candidates commit to maintaining funding for Great Lakes restoration and taking measures to stop Asian carp.

Take a look at the editorials:

The Obama and Romney campaigns are taking notice.

Obama, of course, sent top campaign surrogate Carol Browner to the Healing Our Waters’ 8th Annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Cleveland last month. Then last week, both campaigns sent their positions on the Great Lakes to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, with Romney saying he was “outraged” at the lack of progress on Asian carp, prompting a similarly outraged response from  Obama Chief of Staff Jacob Lew .

The editorials are coming in so fast that it’s hard to keep up. Just yesterday morning the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran yet another editorial recognizing that both Obama and Romney are now paying attention and calling on them to build a barrier in the Chicago canals to stop the advance of the Asian carp.

Candidates Trying to One-Up Each Other on the Great Lakes

So it’s a mere three weeks before the 2012 presidential election, and the candidates are trying to one-up each other on the Great Lakes .

The problem is, they’re still not yet making the commitments the lakes need. Yes, the Obama Administration has a very strong record on Great Lakes restoration funding and has made a commitment to continue it. Romney’s campaign made a restoration funding commitment, albeit a little vague.

Neither has committed to building the barrier in the Chicago canals needed to stop the advance of Asian carp toward Lake Michigan.

Well, voters want to hear a commitment on Asian carp and time is growing short.  President Obama and Governor Romney, now that we have your attention, we direct you to the wise counsel of former Ohio Governor Bob Taft, who wrote this week in a guest editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer,

The Great Lakes are an “every-American issue.” They are not a partisan issue any more than Glacier National Park was a partisan issue. The Great Lakes are not a regional issue any more than the BP oil spill was a regional issue….

So, we’ll offer candidates an easy way into the hearts of Great Lakes voters for President Obama and Governor Romney. Take the Great Lakes Protection and Restoration Candidate Pledge affirming the precious nature of this great asset and committing to do whatever is necessary to protect and restore it, including an effective defense against the Asian carp.

It’s crunch time. Will you take the pledge President Obama and Governor Romney?

It’s Time to Get Outside

October 3, 2012

Hi, everyone. After a summer blogging break, I’m back with a new challenge: the indoor child.

Yesterday, Michigan’s online news magazine, The Bridge, ran a piece I wrote, Let’s Open the Door for Student Success, about an unrecognized epidemic that’s harming our children, our communities, and our planet. Gone are the days of kids spending their days outside. Now most kids rarely see the outdoors, and instead are plugged into computers and electronic media – an average of 7.5 hours per day per child, not even counting schoolwork, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. And kids recognize 1000 corporate brands, but not even 10 things in their own backyard.

This indoor childhood trend hurts kids health (obesity, diabetes) and ability to learn in school. It also depletes the conservation ethic for the next generation – how can kids learn to love what they never experience? And that threatens our communities and all of our futures.

This problem is one we can solve, and it won’t break the bank. Here’s what I wrote in The Bridge:

Part of that new course must be flipping the current balance of indoor-outdoor time during the school day on its head. For too many kids in the Great Lakes State, school is exclusively an indoor experience, and they suffer for it. Research shows that school programs that get kids outside (school gardens and habitats, daily outdoor recess) have proven to better engage students, reduce dropout rates and improve test scores.

Using the schoolyard, community and landscape as the classroom — a learning model called place-based education — is another vital step we must take. Studies (and practical application) show that engagement in learning is heightened through place-based education, as is achievement, natural resource conservation and citizenship.

Reaping the rewards of place-based education requires teachers and administrators who are equipped, trained, supported and comfortable in implementing place-based education best practices. Therefore ongoing professional development in those best practices is essential.

Read the rest of the article.

And for more ideas and information on how to get kids outside, check out our Be Out There campaign!

Great Lakes Leadership

June 19, 2012

If there was ever a day when the Great Lakes need presidential – and presidential candidate –leadership, today is it.

First there’s this week’s release of the latest Asian carp eDNA tests by the Army Corps of Engineers from a single sampling day: 17 positive hits for silver carp past the electronic fence, including 14 in Lake Calumet, a direct shot to Lake Michigan, only five miles away. That’s bad – really bad. Never before has a single sampling event yielded that many positive hits in the Chicago waterways system. In fact, there were only 34 positive hits for Asian carp in all of 2011, and we just got half of that in one sampling day (May 22). Although the Corps cautions that eDNA readings don’t necessarily mean the presence of live fish, that’s pretty hard to argue with so much evidence in such a short time period. It’s pretty clear that the Asian carp are advancing past the electronic fence toward Lake Michigan. The question is how long it takes them to establish a breeding population….and whether our political leaders will act before it’s too late.

Then there’s funding for Great Lakes restoration. Today, the subcommittee considering the EPA’s budget in the  U.S. House of Representatives cut Great Lakes restoration funding by $50 million for next year. That reduces it to $250 million, almost a 50 percent decrease from the $475 million baseline passed in 2010. This, despite the fact that restoring the Great Lakes has proven to be an excellent investment ecologically AND economically; that over 600 projects are underway in eight states that put people back to work; and that the need for restoration work is greater than ever.  Talk to Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, and you’ll hear how algal blooms are decimating Lake Erie and the region’s businesses (including his own). He’ll tell you how important Great Lakes restoration funding is to anybody who fishes, works, or drinks water.

So, what to do, and who should do it? I have an easy answer: President Obama and Governor Romney can fix both of these, right now.  Both of them should publicly commit to maintaining Great Lakes restoration funding – no cuts – and tell their allies in the House and Senate to get in line. Both of them should announce their commitment to building a permanent barrier in the Chicago canals as soon as possible to stop the invasive carp from advancing any further toward Lake Michigan – and to doing whatever it takes to get that barrier in place ASAP. Both of them should tell their respective party leaders to provide the funding and authority needed to stop the carp. And both of them should sign the Great Lakes pledge issued by the Healing Our Waters Coalition, which asks for precisely these commitments.

Sometimes leaders have to make tough and unpopular decisions to do the right thing. This isn’t one of those times. The right thing is to protect 90 percent of the nation’s surface fresh water, the drinking water of 30 million Americans, and the engine for a multi-million dollar economy. The easy thing is to preserve the water wonderland of the people in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota – which just happen to be 2012 presidential swing states.

The Great Lakes need leadership – and this one’s easy. Will the presidential candidates step up?

Those who don’t learn from history…

May 24, 2012

The NWF Great Lakes Regional Center’s new reports on oil and gas drilling, and on sulfide mining could not have been timelier.

Just as we are issuing reports on government efforts to address oil and gas drilling and sulfide mining both industries are announcing major new initiatives in each area– an expansion of the Enbridge oil pipeline, and the approval of a permit for a huge new sulfide mine near Lake Superior.

Individually, the news is not good. Together, the actions begin to form a disturbing pattern of trading short term economic growth for ecological damage and eventual economic decline –that, if uncorrected, threaten the future of the Great Lakes and all of us who depend on them.

Pipeline Report Shows Lax Protections from Oil and Gas Spills

The pipeline report looks at federal and state programs that are supposed to protect people and wildlife from oil and gas spills and leaks. This region is a long way from recovering from the one-million-gallon Enbridge spill in Marshall, Michigan, so you’d suspect that there are some major gaps in protections. You’d be right.

The report documents that the federal government’s protections are weak and the states’ are incomplete, fragmented and ineffective:

  • There is no federal review of the long-term risks associated with routing of new oil pipelines or consideration of impacts to entire watersheds such as the Great Lakes basin, and state review is at best inadequate, and in some cases non-existent;
  • Many areas designated as “environmentally sensitive” are left unprotected by the federal Integrity Management program, the primary tool for assessing the condition of existing lines, installing leak detection systems, and repairing defects on a set timeline; and
  • Within the Great Lakes region, only one state (Minnesota) is certified to regulate intrastate oil pipelines, and only three states (Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois) have any permit requirements for new oil pipeline construction – and in many cases even those requirements are minimal.

We don’t have much time to fix the ineffective state and federal regulations. Enbridge is proposing to expand two of their pipelines to carry more oil in a more corrosive form though pipes that are 50-60 years old. The federal agencies need to do their jobs when reviewing the Enbridge plan, and even more importantly, the states need to step up. Michigan needs to closely scrutinize the Enbridge expansion plan and, if necessary, order the company to change it to make it safer. And the feds need to take a new and much harder look at the entire project.

Great Lakes Region in Midst of Mineral Rush

Our sulfide mining report also paints a grim picture of short-term jobs and revenues being traded for long-term ecological harm like acid mine drainage that destroys not just lakes and streams but also the jobs that depend on them. The Great Lakes region is experiencing a mineral mining rush. Billions of dollars of gold, nickel, copper and other metals have been discovered in sulfide ore bodies in the upper Great Lakes states and mining companies are pursuing them at full speed.

The tradeoff posed by this mining rush is not simply jobs vs. the environment; it is jobs vs. jobs – mining jobs vs. tourism and recreation jobs, and mining jobs vs. the jobs in the knowledge economy that come to a region when its quality of life is high.

Federal protections against this type of sulfide mining are minimal and the state response is mixed. Some, like Wisconsin, are doing a decent job; others, like Michigan, are not. The report found, for example, that Michigan has a potentially effective law, but that its methods of implementing and enforcing it are weak.

And that’s bad news for Lake Superior. Michigan has already approved the massive Kennecott mine, which will be dug underneath the Salmon Trout River, a blue-ribbon trout stream that runs through pristine forest to Lake Superior, only a few miles away. Michigan’s approval came despite overwhelming evidence that acid mine drainage is likely to occur and that the mine itself could collapse, endangering workers and sucking in the entire Salmon Trout River.

Last week, Michigan issued an initial permit for a second operation, the Orvana Copperwood Mine, to be located in the far western tip of the Upper Peninsula only two miles from Lake Superior. Mining at Orvana would be permitted within 200 feet of the Lake Superior shoreline. 200 feet! That puts the risk of acid mine drainage  less than a football field away from the largest, cleanest lake in North America.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

When we talk about the Great Lakes, we often think about “restoration” – helping the lakes recover from decades of historic contamination and other threats. We think of restoring the status quo. But that’s not right; for the Great Lakes the status quo isn’t static. It’s moving all the time, and in these areas, the status of the lakes is degrading.

We cannot restore the lakes with one hand while we’re making them worse with the other. It’s much easier to make them sick than it is to make them healthy. The adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” strongly applies to the Great Lakes. It is far more costly to restore the damage than to prevent it in the first place.

The agencies charged with regulating pipelines and mines need to consider why we need a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. In the past we allowed the kinds of pollution that they’re allowing now. That pollution damaged the lakes to the point where we need a $20 billion investment to bring them back to health. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.

The Great Lakes are the foundation of our economy, our recreation, our quality of life, our health. Let’s treat them that way.

Wooing Great Lakes Voters

May 16, 2012

This week the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent a shot across the bow of the presidential candidates. In an editorial, it chastised the Obama Administration for doing too little, too late to stop Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes. It criticized the Army Corps of Engineers for moving too slowly in finding a permanent solution, and took the Administration to task for failing to support hydrological separation between the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes.

It concluded with, “If Obama really wants to woo voters in the Great Lakes states, he should tell the Army Corps to take the coalition report, crunch the numbers quickly, and start shoveling dirt.”

If this sounds familiar, it should: this is the same logic that prompted the Healing Our Waters Coalition and NWF to issue the Great Lakes Protection and Restoration Presidential Candidates Pledge. Healing Our Waters, the 120-organization coalition dedicated to restoring and protecting the Great Lakes, asked all the candidates for president to pledge to:

  1. Maintain and if possible increase funding for Great Lakes restoration, and
  2. Commit to constructing a barrier in the Chicago canals that would hydrologically separate the Mississippi River and Great Lakes watersheds.

President Obama has committed to the funding, but as the Plain Dealer points out so clearly, he’s resisted committing to the long-term measures needed to stop the invasion of Asian carp.

What the Plain Dealer hasn’t said is that thus far, Governor Romney has committed to neither.

I hope both candidates read the Plain Dealer editorial. The largest newspaper in the most critical swing state in the nation is telling them what moves their voters, and guess what? It’s the Great Lakes.

Mr. President and Mr. Governor, how about that pledge?

Great Lakes Are Down In The Count When It Comes To Invasive Species

April 10, 2012

Saturday opened the first weekend of the baseball season and an excellent article in the New York Times on the government’s weak attempts to hit invasive species out of the park (or at least out of the Great Lakes). I’m afraid that we’ve used up one strike already, and we could easily whiff on the next two pitches.

Here’s why this metaphor is less strained that you’d think.

Strike one was the Coast Guard ballast water rules reported on by the Times. Twenty-two years after zebra mussels colonized the Great Lakes, the Coast Guard finally issues rules designed to keep out invasive species. Those rules are a step in the right direction (they actually require ships to install measures to treat invasive species for the first time – imagine!). But the Coast Guard’s rules are too little, and much too delayed.

The Coast Guard’s weak ballast water rules still allow ships to discharge some invaders in their ballast, and as we all know, it only takes two critters to meet at the right time, and suddenly you have a breeding population. Equally bad, the rules allow some ships to avoid installing any treatment for nine more years –  until 2021. D’ya think the first 20 years would have been enough lead time?

Two more pitches are coming over plate next, and our batters aren’t looking so good. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a draft permit that’s not much better than the Coast Guard rule. The permit is not final, so the agency has the chance to improve it, and many of us have sent in comments (pdf) urging just that–for the EPA to make important improvements to the ballast water permit. But if the EPA doesn’t do an about face on the permit, then the Great Lakes will suffer a big Strike Two.

And the final pitch is how the states handle the EPA ballast water permit. Each of the Great Lakes states has the chance to add protections to the EPA permit when it is applied in state waters. Given how much states depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water, economic growth, and quality of life, you’d think that the states would be lining up to bolster protections against the invasion of non-native species like zebra mussels. But so far, the silence has been deafening—and the clock is ticking. The states have until May to certify the EPA permit. At least one state (Wisconsin) has said it only wants to apply the weak EPA/Coast Guard standards, cracking the door open for new invaders.

State inaction would be Strike Three. With apologies to “Casey At The Bat,” striking out would bring no joy to Mudville … or to the Great Lakes.


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