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Great Lakes Rejuvenation

by Chicago WC local blogger Patrick Rollens

Article Photo

The Great Lakes have had a rough ride over the last century. From fish kills to flaming rivers, the globe's largest concentration of fresh water has borne the brunt of the Rust Belt's rise and fall. Most folks in Chicago only concern themselves with the Great Lakes during summer heat waves, when boating and beaches beckon.

However, the hydrological assets of the Great Lakes are astoundingly valuable. Alan Atkisson wrote on Worldchanging in 2004 that water conservation may well prove to be the defining environmental effort over the next few decades. The water in Lake Michigan, for example, is poised to become Chicago's greatest natural resource in the future and a key element of the city's evolving economy. Safeguarding the supply of fresh water to our east is rapidly becoming essential to the future of Chicago and other Lake cities.

According to Great Lakes Forever, a nonprofit dedicated to furthering education and conservation efforts around the Lakes, about 5,000 gallons of water are lost annually for every one of the Great Lakes basin's 33 million residents, which is equivalent to 157 billion gallons of water forever lost from the region's watershed. So not only must we clean and purify the water remaining in the Lakes, but we must also watch over and cultivate its healthy renewal.

An article in Rachel's Democracy & Health News by Tim Montague spotlights exactly what's been done over the years, both to damage and repair the Great Lakes system. According to the article, the management of the Lakes in the last century can best be categorized as a series of missed opportunities. Vague laws and lackluster enforcement resulted in a narrowly averted catastrophe – and we're not out of the woods yet.

But unlike many other environmental causes, the Great Lakes have a relatively powerful advocate out front. The International Joint Commission, a US-Canadian governing entity established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, has been increasing its calls for more regulation and conservation of the Great Lakes. The commission has even taken the important and unusual step of calling for the elimination of all substances for which health and environmental information is still uncertain.

Most importantly, the IJC recently called for an entirely new rendition of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The 1972 legislation was well-intentioned but doomed to fail when the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament refused to ratify it. The new Agreement advocated by the IJC is streamlined and forward-thinking – but Rachel's article suggests as much as $20 billion will be required to return the Great Lakes to something approaching a sustainable development path.

There's no doubt the Great Lakes will be part of the Midwest's worldchanging future, but will that future see the Great Lakes as a rusty reminder of our industrial past or a shining example of resource management on a grand scale?

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Fantastic Article, fantastic picture. I've worked 4 summers at that very beach in the bottom of the picture (Oak Street Beach) and I can say even in the 4 years there's been a visible lowering of water level, and when old timers come around from the 60's and even 50's they talk about the water being several feet higher than it is now. I will say however that the water is clean. All things considered, being right downtown of the 3rd largest city in America, that water is remarkably clean. Probably cleaner than your local park lawn.

Posted by: Martin Walsh on 10 Dec 06

I believe that is the Zebra Mussels effect. I remember in Ecology class having to study that effect in detail and from what I remember, it's introduction into the Food Web prompted dramatic and positive changes in the amount of toxins that gets filtered as the species of mussels that they displaced had a much lower efficiency then the Zebra Mussel itself. It has found it's niche and has in some places lowered the amount of pollution by as much as 50 %. Unfortunately I live in Toronto on the shore of Lake Ontario and this effect hasn't been as potent here as it has been in some of the more southerly Great Lakes.

Posted by: Chris on 10 Dec 06

I was glad to see this on the Chicago site and I'm delighted to see that you've brought it to the main page. Thanks for shining a light on this natural resource.

A few of us are working to create new models of how to manage how we humans interact with natural systems, focusing on the Great Lakes. Major issues include: preventing biological pollution (probably the biggest threat to the health of the lakes), restoring natural flows (over two trillion gallons of water are used in the lakes, about nine times the volume that leaves the system through the St. Lawrence River), and influencing distant decisions (like the construction of coal burning power plants in Asia,or infrastructure choices in Europe). The right answers will be built in ways (and by people) that are fundamentally different than the old ways (and with different talents) of solving regional problems.

Posted by: j david on 11 Dec 06



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