Better To Address Lake Threats Now Than Respond To Catastrophe Later

Nov 6, 2007 Issues: Environment

President George W. Bush just vetoed a major water infrastructure bill critical to the health of the Great Lakes and other water resources around the country. This veto demonstrates that the White House has not learned any lesson from past catastrophes that occurred when infrastructure needs were ignored.

Three months ago, the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. Two years ago, the levee system in New Orleans failed during Hurricane Katrina, putting 80% of the city under water. At this moment, the city of Atlanta is running out of water as a result of exceptional drought and explosive population growth.

In each of these disasters, there were warning signs that went unheeded. In each case, there was a failure of critical infrastructure. In Minneapolis and New Orleans, key infrastructure was not adequately maintained, and in Atlanta, the needed infrastructure was never built.

Another kind of infrastructure failure is threatening Michigan's most precious natural resource: our Great Lakes. The warning signs are apparent, but some people fail to see -- or choose to ignore --the danger.

While the lakes have made a remarkable comeback over the last 35 years since the Clean Water Act became law, scientists warn that a combination of historical sources of environmental stress have combined with new threats to the lakes, potentially leading to ecosystem breakdown. For example, a large, oxygen-starved "dead zone" opens up each summer in Lake Erie. Like a canary in a coal mine, this is a sign that all is not well.

Damaging aquatic invasive species arrive in the lakes at a rate of one every eight months. One particular aquatic invasive species -- the Asian carp -- poses an especially menacing threat and is literally sitting at the lakes' back door. The carp would devastate the Great Lakes fishery and destroy the ecosystem if it ever enters the lakes. The only thing keeping the Great Lakes safe is an electronic barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. But the current barrier is only a stopgap measure; it was never intended to be permanent. Closer to my own congressional district, Lake St. Clair continues to experience beach closings, loss of wetlands, and damage from aquatic invasive species like the zebra mussel.

President Bush vetoed the Water Resources Development Act, which Congress recently approved. It called for $23 billion in water infrastructure investments across the country, including funds to build a permanent electronic barrier in Chicago to keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. The legislation also contains a provision I helped author that calls for up to $20 million to carry out restoration projects in Lake St. Clair over the next several years.

The investment to protect our Great Lakes now makes fiscal sense. Ultimately, the price tag for the critical investments called for in the Water Resources Development Act will not become any cheaper if we put them off. On the contrary, as we've seen in Minneapolis, New Orleans and Atlanta, the cost of fixing a disaster is often many times greater than investing wisely to prevent the problem. Our choice is clear: Prioritize spending now to keep our lakes protected, or likely face huge costs later -- when irreversible damage to the Great Lakes may have already been done.

The Great Lakes are a unique treasure, but they will not survive if we ignore warning signs and fail to make the investments needed to protect them.

**To view the article please visit The Detroit Free Press online.