Column by Douglas Turner for Buffalo News
July 23, 2012
WASHINGTON – Looking south from Bay Beach, Ont., it seemed as though one could walk all the way across Lake Erie south to Sturgeon Point, N.Y. The Great Lakes system, recording its lowest levels in more than a half-century, is under severe and continuing stress from global warming.
The effect on one-fifth of the world’s surface supply of fresh water is obviously opposite from that on the oceans, which are gradually rising.
The system is meticulously surveyed by at least three American agencies, but it is not really governed as it should be to safeguard it from predators, foreign and domestic. Rather, it is overseen under a 103-year-old treaty, fashioned with Canada when it was still part of the British Empire.
The binational International Joint Commission, with its immense bureaucracy, monitors and advises governments on water diversions and channel levels. But the IJC could not protect the lakes from generations of toxic industrial waste dumping that killed the commercial fishery and came close to making the system unswimmable. It cannot protect it now.
The 1960s environmental movement and the wholesale flight to Asia of industry from the lakes basin was what temporarily rescued the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River basin.
But new threats to shallow Lake Erie, in particular, are massive. They include:
* The opening in 2014 of the massive new Canadian water tunnel above Niagara Falls, which will enable Ontario to match the New York Power Authority’s increased diversions for hydro purposes.
* Unloading of a volatile new phosphorous runoff from the 120-mile Maumee River near Toledo, Ohio, creating huge new beds of poisonous algae, according to an article in the Voice, a Montclair, Mich., weekly. This is a direct threat to the lake’s revived sports fishery.
* The reported signing by Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich of a bill that could, according to environmental critics, allow industry to withdraw millions of gallons a day from Lake Erie.
The bill is similar to one sought by Ohio’s Chamber of Commerce that Kasich vetoed last year, after appeals from Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., and former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.
It is unclear whether other Great Lakes governors or Canada can block the Ohio law under a 1990 international compact. But it is designed to be immune from challenges by environmentalists.
The iceless winter, the spring rains that never came and the great drought of 2012 have heightened the strain on dozens of water level disputes from Georgian Bay to Lake Ontario. Rep. Kathy Hochul, D-Amherst, is joining Niagara and Monroe counties in questioning an IJC plan that would aggravate erosion problems along Ontario’s south shore.
Wetlands have turned into meadows on Lakes Superior and Huron. A municipality near Milwaukee, Wis., wants to take Lake Michigan water to flush radium from its sewer lines. Three states are fighting over whether a channel into Lake Saint Claire should be dredged.
Among the issues that the IJC cannot do anything about is the continued unloading of sewage into the lakes. By the way, Buffalo is among the 12 worst U.S. sewage polluters in the lakes system, according to Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., co-chairman of the Congressional Great Lakes Caucus.
Yet even Kirk is content with the rest of Washington to pick at issues one at a time, instead of working to comprehensively protect this fabulous, irreplaceable resource.
With all the talk of limited government and federalism, this is probably a bad time to talk about creating a new, tough omnibus agency to save this system.
There’s no need to disband or downgrade the conscientious work of the IJC. But something fundamental must be done before we’re out of time.