Great Lakes: The Year In Review

Between Letterman and Colbert, it’s pretty daunting to put together any sort of year-end Top 10 list, especially for something as esoteric as Great Lakes policy. But an awful lot has happened this year and I thought I’d take a shot.

So without any (intentional) irony or comedy, here’s my list of the top 10 developments (good and bad) in Great Lakes policy for 2011 – plus a bonus entry at the end! And to add to the excitement, I’ve tried to put these in order of significance and concluded with a final grade for 2011. Debate on the entries, the order and the grade is welcome. (Drum roll, please):

    1. Great Lakes restoration funding: Congress came through at $300 million for FY 11 in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That’s significantly less than the baseline set by the Obama Administration in 2009, but still quite robust, especially considering the budget axes being wielded on both sides of the aisle.Great Lakes restoration funding continues to be the exception to the partisan warfare

      that has plagued this Congress, and we sure hope that continues. GLRI funding has resulted in over 900 restoration projects over the past two years with more projects in the pipeline.

    2. Algal blooms break out in Great Lakes: 2011 was the “year of the algal bloom” in the Great Lakes. Lake Erie suffered the worst toxic algal bloom in recorded history last summer. The algae extended miles along the shoreline and miles out into the water, in places over 6 inches thick. It shut down beaches and fishing and caused respiratory problems for charter boat captains trying to cross the blooms into clearer waters.Algae (some toxic) also broke out in blooms in other lakes, including Huron’s Saginaw Bay and the eastern shore of Lake Michigan up to Sleeping Bear Dunes.

      As described in NWF’s report, Feast and Famine in the Great Lakes, these blooms are caused by excessive nutrients entering the watershed and exacerbated by invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels.

      So far, policy solutions have lagged far behind the problem. Although Ohio has a special task force devoted to the crisis, the state does not have the tools or the funds to stop the nutrient additions to the lake. And the best federal tool – a new Farm Bill – is months, if not years, from completion.

    3. Asian Carp Delays: This year we saw continued delays by the Army Corps of Engineers and the courts in taking action toward a permanent barrier to stop Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan. The Corps insists it can’t even finish its feasibility study until 2015.A federal appeals court, while recognizing the importance of stopping the carp from reaching the Great Lakes, refused to order the Corps to speed the study,  and thus far Congressional efforts to do the same have been stymied.Under the Corps’ schedule for completing the study, the carp are likely to colonize the lake and the Corps study will be an exercise in futility. Sampling shows that carp DNA continue to be found near the lake, indicating that at least isolated fish have swum past the electric cable designed to keep them at bay.

      Meanwhile, the Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative are finalizing their own study on how to separate Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River and expect to release it in January – a full three years before the Corps. THAT’S how you do it!

    4. States step up on the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact: New York hit a home run and Ohio barely escaped striking out on the Great Lakes compact this year. New York passed a strong law last summerthat requires anyone withdrawing more than 100,000 gallons of water per day to get approval and apply water conservation measures.Meanwhile, Ohio’s legislature passed a terrible bill that would have allowed almost unlimited withdrawals with no oversight (the thresholds set before regulation kicked in were so high that the legislature expected no water user ever to be regulated). Although initially inclined to sign the bill, pressure from within Ohio and from other Great Lakes states convinced Governor Kasich to issue a much needed veto.

      For a more comprehensive report on how all the states are doing, check out NWF’s report, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

    5. EPA issues new draft permit for ballast discharges into Great Lakes: In November, the EPA issued the draft of a new Vessel General Permit that for the first time would require ships to install treatment technology to clean their ballast water.  That’s the good news.The bad news is that the required technology won’t consistently stop new invasions. The ships would have to meet the International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) standard, which allows ships to continue to discharge invasive organisms at low concentrations into the Great Lakes.But that’s not good enough.Unlike other pollution, invasive species organisms are pollution that reproduce – they multiply. So low concentrations initially can easily become high concentrations over time – which is exactly what happened with zebra mussels.

      Fortunately, the draft EPA rule allows states to enact tougher rules and laws, which is exactly what New York and Michigan have done. Those states’ laws – particularly New York’s, which applies to every vessel entering the Great Lakes – provide far better protections than the EPA’s proposed rule.

      Now the challenge is keeping Congress from invalidating the state laws and establishing the too-weak IMO standard as a legal ceiling – even if it’s clear that the standard doesn’t work. The House has already passed a harmful bill; it’s now up to the Senate to stop it.

    6. Michigan Governor vetoes bill that would have damaged Great Lakes protections: In November, Governor Rick Snyder vetoed his first bill ever: legislation that would have prevented Michigan agencies from issuing any rules or permits that are more restrictive than federal minimums.Without the veto, Michigan would have been unable to reissue its precedent-setting permit to restrict ballast water discharges of invasive species, or to improve its water quality standard for phosphorus, the primary cause of the lakes’ massive and growing algae blooms. The veto was a rare occasion of public disagreement between the Governor and the legislature, making it an even stronger indicator of the Governor’s commitment to the Great Lakes.
    7. Ohio Supreme Court Restores Public’s Rights to Lake Erie: The Ohio Supreme Court gave the people of Ohio a surprising legal victory on the public’s right to access and use the shoreline of Lake Erie.  Two lower court rulings had shrunk the public’s ownership of and access to the Lake Erie coast, essentially giving away this precious resource to private landowners.The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the lower court decisions, returning ownership to the public. The Court’s opinion is not without ambiguities, and the case now goes back to the lower courts for final disposition, where the parties will continue to litigate the case.
    8. EPA is issuing mercury reduction rules for power plants: EPA on December 16 is scheduled to finalize its rules for reducing mercury emissions for power plants, the leading source of mercury in the Great Lakes and inland lakes and streams. All of the Great Lakes states have statewide fish consumptions advisories warning people to restrict or avoid entirely their consumption of certain fish because of mercury contamination. The U.S. House has passed bills to attempt to roll back the EPA protections,  but those bills are unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate.Michigan Out-Of-Doors former TV host Bob Garner led a Tele-Town Hall on the mercury rule this month attended by 14,000 hunters and anglers. As Bob said, “We can’t fillet our way out” of mercury in fish.
    9. Michigan court opens the door to sulfide mining: In November, a Michigan Circuit Court allowed a highly damaging mine to go forward in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula despite overwhelming evidence that the mine would cause acid mine drainage in blue-water trout streams, had a high risk of collapsing and draining those streams, would destroy a place of tribal worship, and violated Michigan’s new mining law in dozens of significant ways.The court decision, which is being appealed, upheld a deeply flawed Michigan DEQ decision and set a potentially devastating precedent for protections of the U.P.’s water, land, recreation and tourism. Various companies are now exploring over a dozen of other potential mining sites in the region and the state has permitted a mining processing center in the U.P., drawing additional mining to the region.
    10. Sewer system funding: This is always one of the under-the-radar stories about the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes states received $549 million to modernize and repair their sewers in FY 11– a top priority for stopping the billions of gallons of raw sewage spilled into the lakes. The Great Lakes states’ funding comes through a national program, the State Revolving Loan Fund of the Clean Water Act, as part of a formula (about one-third of the national total). This funding was cut in FY 11 by 27% and may decline even more in FY 12, even though the need is far greater.

      In the immortal words of This is Spinal Tap, “And this one goes to eleven…”

    11. Seventeen Attorneys General call for action to close the invasive species superhighway: Led by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, seventeen of the nation’s Attorneys General sent a letter to Congress calling for passage of a law to speed the Army Corps of Engineers study on closing the Chicago canal system to invasive species and then to implement the study rapidly.This letter is significant because it indicates a growing concern across the country – not just in the Great Lakes — about the passage of invasive species through the canals in both directions. Most of the attention so far has been on the potential for Asian carp to swim through the canals to Lake Michigan; but there’s at least as much danger for invasive species in Lake Michigan to travel through the canals to invade the Mississippi River and the rest of the nation. That’s already happened with zebra mussels, which began in the Great Lakes and now plague 31 states from Massachusetts to California.  With his growing national coalition of Attorneys General, the pressure on Congress and the Corps to act has increased.

For those of you keeping score, that’s seven positive developments, three negative ones, and one that’s more or less neutral (the EPA’s ballast water permit).

Although this tally is good for the Great Lakes, I’d give 2011 an overall grade of no more than a C+. Some of the good stuff was really stopping policies from getting worse (e.g., the vetoes); and the bad stuff is really bad (massive algal blooms, Asian carp).

Let’s celebrate the 2011 victories for the lakes, and then get ready for 2012. I have a feeling we’re in for quite a year.

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