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Published: Friday, 10/18/2002

Tight U.S. budget crimps Great Lakes research


CLEVELAND - With a possible war pending in Iraq, the Great Lakes will face even stiffer competition for federal research dollars, which could hurt tourism and even drive up industry costs.

The need for more priority-setting isn't lost on some 400 scientists and policymakers attending the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference here, a biennial summit sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Canadian counterpart, Environment Canada.

From bait shops to beachfront hotels, the tourist industry counts on researchers to keep pace with emerging issues, such as the mysterious dead zone in Lake Erie's central basin.

Factories, water treatment plants, and power generators have a vested interest as well, to the degree that they want to know how much zebra mussels and other intruders can drive up costs by clogging intakes.

This year's forum goes beyond merely providing an update on scattered events such as beach closings that kept swimmers out of the water and botulism outbreaks that killed fish and birds. It delves into the nitty-gritty of deciding what types of data - called biological indicators - are best to use as sentinels to obtain a more panoramic view of the basin's ecological health.

It's not new research methodology, but it is getting more refined - in part, officials said, because money is getting tight.

Dennis Schornack, the International Joint Commission's U.S. chairman, said yesterday that two bills in Congress have made him optimistic about Great Lakes funding. One calls for $250 million over five years to remove toxic sediment; the other calls for unspecified millions to help close the door on invasive species.

But he and others are fully aware that financial challenges were looming even before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the nation's agenda.

The Great Lakes region lost several votes in Congress as a result of population shifts documented in the 2000 Census.

That hasn't stopped area officials from repeatedly showing their envy over an $8 billion dollar package that Florida officials got a couple of years ago to restore the Everglades.

"People are feeling a little Everglades envy," Mr. Schornack said. Any optimism, he said, will be tempered if Middle East tensions escalate.

Tom Skinner, U.S. EPA Midwest region administrator, said the issue isn't whether President Bush recognizes the value of the lakes, which together hold 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water.

"The issue is competing for dollars when things are so stagnant," he said.

George Kuper of the Council of Great Lakes Industries in Ann Arbor, which represents many of the region's largest industry groups, said priority-setting is more important than ever so policy decisions will be based on research dollars spent wisely.

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