Great Lakes facing total collapse

The Great Lakes are losing their ability to recover from environmental stress and avoid a catastrophic collapse, scientists said, according to a report from the Associated Press.

Reasons given as contributing factors are vanishing wetlands, partly due to development, and degrading shorelines. Andy Bujchsbaum of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office, told the AP: “The immune system of the Great Lakes is weakened, and it needs to be restored to prevent the ecological collapse of the lakes.”

About 75 of the area’s aquatic specialists issued the warning in a report presented as a U.S. administration task force prepared to reveal its plan for bringing the lakes back to a healthy state.

Proponents are pressuring the George W. Bush administration for hefty new spending on a wide-ranging effort to repair problems ranging from the invasion of exotic species to heavily polluted “hot spots.” They are asking for $20 billion over the next 15 years, chiefly from the federal government but also from state and local governments.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, however, has hinted the plan may have to rely on existing federal funds, stating it must spend $5 billion in the next 10 years on water quality projects in the Great Lakes.

The final version of the plan was released earlier this week in Chicago. U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., called for more funding. “The bottom line is that we have had enough study and wasted enough time,” he said. “We need to restore and protect this precious resource, and it’s going to take money to do it.”

The scientists’ report said an overall plan is needed because piecemeal attempts to do the job had failed. It mentioned a number of familiar problems—beaches fouled by raw sewage, declining fish populations and fish tainted with mercury and other toxins.

Many of the causes, such as urban and agricultural runoff, over fishing and toxic dumping, have been known for years, but the lakes are steadily becoming less able to deal with them, according to the report.

The report said it’s because the regulatory mechanisms, such as wetlands, tributaries and connecting channels are collapsing. These things, in the past, have been the buffers between the lakes and harmful human activities. Coastal wetlands filter out contaminants, but they are vanishing at an alarming rate. More than 90 percent of wetlands in the Lake Huron-Erie corridor have been wiped out by development.

Don Scavia, director of the Michigan Sea Grant program and an author of the report, said: “Most ecosystems are naturally resilient to change. In the Great Lakes, we’ve eliminated or reduced that resilience.”

From the Dec. 14-20, 2005, issue

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