Cleaning up the lakes


OF ALL America's bounties, none is of greater importance than its abundance of fresh water. When Congress reconvenes next week, one of its first orders of business should be passing legislation to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

Securing the health of the lakes should not be a partisan issue. As global populations increase, fresh water will become an increasingly valuable resource. The Great Lakes contain some 6 quadrillion gallons of fresh water. That's a six followed by 15 zeroes, about 20 percent of all the surface fresh water in the world.

Including Canadians, about 40 million people get their drinking water from the Great Lakes. Tens of millions of people depend on the lakes for their livelihood. Uncounted millions of people hunt fish, swim, and sail on or near the lakes. By itself, fishing in the lakes is a $7 billion industry.

Those numbers are going to grow, and with them will grow the importance of keeping the lakes healthy.

Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the Great Lakes are under attack. Voracious Asian carp - just the latest invasive species to threaten the lakes - are believed by some to be on the verge of entering Lake Michigan. Industrial and agricultural runoff, wastewater infused with discarded pharmaceuticals, and sewer overflows pollute all five lakes.

Algae blooms this summer in the shallow waters of western Lake Erie, as well as elsewhere, threatened both economic and recreational uses. And toxic sediments, a legacy of 150 years of irresponsible use, cover the lake bed in many areas and await cleanup.

The appropriate response to these challenges is before Congress, which should speedily approve the Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection Act and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Passing these bills and protecting funding levels are critical to guarding the future health of the Great Lakes.

Congress should resist the urge to slash funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to fund smaller, less important projects. Cleaning up the lakes and restoring habitats won't be cheap. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plan to reverse the abuse and neglect the lakes have suffered will cost $2.2 billion over several years. But it's worth it.

Lawmakers from states bordering the Great Lakes, including Sen. George Voinovich and Rep. Steve LaTourette of Geauga County, both Republicans, and Democrats Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Marcy Kaptur know that the lakes are too important to all Americans to fall prey to partisan politics or regional competition.

Water is life. Even a lame-duck Congress should be able to see that and respond by protecting and restoring this vital resource.