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Preserving our Water Treasure

   Chicago’s strategic location on Lake Michigan benefits our city in many ways—the picturesque skyline, the tree-lined Lake Shore Drive, our sparkling boat harbors and our crowded beaches. But underneath the surface, there are many  politically charged environmental issues slowly threatening Lake Michigan. From BP dumping ammonia and toxic solids into the lake to beverage companies diverting and exporting Great Lakes water to their bottling plants, corporate exploitation of our waterways will threaten Lake Michigan in the years ahead unless the Great Lakes basin has legal safeguards in place to clean up and preserve our lake. We can learn from others’ mistakes. Last year, citizens let their voices be heard about BP’s efforts to increase the amount of waste they could dump into Lake Michigan; 65,000 people wrote that they opposed the discharge permit issued by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, and BP backed off on their plans to increase dumping in our lake. The question begs, why is any company or citizen dumping anything into Lake Michigan, our public treasure? And why are bottling companies still permitted to withdraw millions of gallons from Lake Michigan?
    The disappearing Aral Sea in Central Asia is on the boundary of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Since 1960, the sea has lost 90 percent of its volume and 75 percent of its suface area. Peter Annin, the author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, quotes Nicholai Aladin, a professor and zoologist with the Russian Academy, observing, “The Aral Sea is a biblical disaster.” It is also an ecological and financial tragedy that serves as an example of what could happen to the Great Lakes if we don’t make protecting our bountiful water a priority. As the Aral Sea receded, alarmed fisherman watched their way of life destroyed with it.
How could such a nightmare happen in such a short time span?
   Some scientists believe that shortened ice-cover periods of time on the Great Lakes are a sign that global warming has affected the water levels. Other scientists see the variance in water levels as part of the usual 35-year cycle. Whether or not global warming is affecting Great Lakes water levels, one thing is for sure, says Annin: the spring ice coverage break-up is now two days sooner every 10 years. And when that happens, the ice coverage on the lake, which prevents evaporation of water, can lead to a variance of mixing. “Mixing” is the term for stratification of layers of water that circulate at certain times of the year to refresh oxygen levels. When water doesn’t mix, the lack of oxygen can create “dead zones,” where fish cannot thrive. If levels of lake water recede, it not only could be catastrophic to the shipping, fishing and tourism industries, the environmental and financial costs of dredging waterways and the losses of hydropower would be astronomical.
   Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan beaches have frequently been closed due to E. coli bacteria counts. Until this summer, beach closings have occured at great cost. FortWayne.com reports that the daily cost of closing a beach ranges somewhere between $8,000 and $37,000 of tourism revenue. And, unfortunately, E. coli tests have traditionally taken a day to read, so while a beach may be found to be too polluted for swimming, the following day the counts may be down. Some of the closings may not be necessary. Luckily, according to the Windy Citizen, Chicago’s 63rd Street Beach has initiated a new pilot program designed to better discern whether the water is safe for swimming, hour-by-hour. This technique uses predictive modeling sensors to give more timely and thus more accurate information to the Chicago Park District, which monitors each beach. Lake County has been using this technology for several years.
   E. coli bacteria finds its way into Lake Michigan by stormwater overflows containing garbage, human and animal waste, including seagull droppings. Michigan had 198 contamination readings last year, compared with 124 in 2006, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Great Lakes had beachwater contamination findings 15 percent of the time in 2006. Beach closings and advisories are often due to storm waters and sewage spills caused by aging sewer pipes. Indiana had twice as many closings and advisory days this year as in 2006.
  And if E. coli weren’t bad enough, a deadly ebola-like viral fish disease called VHS was found in Lake Michigan this summer.
  Other sources of grave concern with our Great Lakes are freighters that dump or rinse out millions of pounds of “dry residues” such as iron ore, coal and other stone particles into the water.
   Ships dumping ballast water into the Great Lakes are the most pressing of our environmental concerns because non-native “exotic” species, like the recent invasion of the tiny New Zealand mud snail, are threatening Lake Michigan. The asexual snails are as small as a pin head and are mostly shell so they have no natural predators here, thus threatening our whole food chain. These miniscule invaders join the zebra and quagga mussels and the aggressive round goby from Asia. To add to that misery, a new algae species—Claedophora— is finding its way here too. These species are but a handful of the 186 invaders in the Great Lakes. Another invader, the gigantic flying Asian carp, has been found in the Illinois River and is trying to make its way to Lake Michigan. In 2002, a temporary electrical fence was built to discourage the fish with electrical shocks. Now a $9 million dollar permanent electric barrier has been built to discourage these jumbo fish from making Lake Michigan their home.
  The Senate passed a bill called the Great Lakes Basin Compact in August to protect against diversion of our waters. There are other environmental proposals affecting the health and preservation of the Great Lakes being addressed in Congress, including bills regulating ballast water discharges. Many environmentalists find the EPA regulation of ballast exchanges completely ineffective. Others say we need nearly $20 billion to clean up the Great Lakes. Still, others feel that the Compact and other pending legislation do not do enough to protect the lakes from increased commercial exploitation.
   As global warming threatens our planet, we have to protect our great water resource from evaporation, exploitation and reckless
use by oceangoing vessels, for the sake of not only Chicago, but the country. The loss of the Aral Sea went unnoticed until it reached the tipping point—and then it was too late. We can’t  afford to let that happen here.

Published: October 11, 2008
Issue: November 2008 Investing In Chicago


Asian Carp
This is an excellent article. I have a suggestion. Asian Carp is a threatening invasive species. It also is a tasty fish, eaten in other parts of the world. Let us harvest it, and eat it , to extinction ,hopefully. Possibly this magazine can suggest that to Chicago restaurants and consumers.
hrafson@sbcgobal.net, Oct-14-2008