AMERICA's inland seas, the Great Lakes, are perhaps the most striking symbol of how bountiful are the resources of the United States. The lakes, into which we have poured the refuse from cities, farms, and industrial enterprises, have long been short-changed by a federal government which is unaccustomed to thinking in long-range terms.
On the face of it, the Bush Administration's task force report on Great Lakes cleanup seems to make a start in that direction, and some observers have so stated. A tentative price tag of $20 billion has been put on this project, although Benjamin Grumbles, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator of water, would not, or more likely could not, verify that figure.
By comparison the Florida Everglades restoration project, in one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, is estimated to cost $8 billion. That figure might put the tentative Great Lakes cleanup price tag in a better perspective.
The economic stakes are high enough. The Great Lakes comprise 90 percent of the nation's surface fresh water. They provide drinking water for 30 million people and generate a $50 billion recreational industry, with Lake Erie alone contributing to an estimated 50,000 jobs.
Roughly $14 billion would be allocated to upgrading the antiquated sewage systems of Great Lakes cities. The cost of upgrading Toledo's system - like that of other communities, it is long out of compliance with standards - is $450 million alone. The task force envisions a 55 percent federal share, with the rest coming from the states. That is not a given, considering the budget shortfalls in many states.
Complaints already have been heard that the task force plan is too costly and too complex. But the Great Lakes are under siege from urban pollution, agricultural run-off, toxic hot spots stemming from short-sighted industrial development, and discharges from ships that have introduced invasive species like zebra mussels into the lakes.
With 27 percent of the congressional representation (and electoral votes), the eight Great Lakes states must put up a united front to protect the wondrous resource that borders them and to finally insist that the lakes must no longer be treated as a convenient sump for a pollution-prone society.