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Published: Monday, 2/19/2007

The Great Lakes effect

THE sheer enormity of the job of cleaning up the Great Lakes suggests why U.S. and Canadian governments might pretend it's somebody else's problem. But if each nation expects the other to take care of the lakes, the International Joint Commission has issued a timely reminder that the lakes benefit us all, and that both nations must address the perpetual problem of pollution and threats of invasive species such as the Asian carp.

The commission is among organizations sounding the alarm to protect the lakes. It has issued biennial reports to the U.S. and Canada since the advent of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972.

The agreement promised to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity" of the lakes and connecting channels. The most recent report urges both nations to get back on track, clean up pollution, and stop invasive species.

South of the border, President Bush has earmarked something in the budget for the lakes, though not enough. He designated $7.6 million for an electronic barrier to keep the Asian carp, now making its way up the Mississippi River, from getting into Lake Michigan. The carp escaped fish farms in the South during floods in the early 1990s. If it reaches the lakes, it could overwhelm native species for food, disrupt the ecosystem, and cripple the $4.5 billion commercial and sport fishery industry.

It's clear why groups such as the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition consider the President's proposal a pittance. The group's director, Jeff Skelding, likened that amount to "treading water, when what's needed is a full-scale rescue." But with war and soaring budget deficits, it's doubtful the U.S. will back the coalition's $20 billion restoration plan.

Numerous problems identified in the original agreement still exist, including sewage overflows and toxic pollution. It's encouraging that the President has asked for $687 million for low-interest loans to help governments around the lakes upgrade sewage treatment systems, but that should have happened before now.

The U.S. and Canada must both update the water-quality agreement. The Great Lakes are the world's largest freshwater supply. They supply drinking water to some 40 million American and Canadian residents, and are the biggest reason this region remains the envy of the world.

If the demands of the Great Lakes seem overwhelming, imagine not having them.

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