By Jay Kemp
One nice thing about writing this message is that no one really tells you what to write about and so I’m going to write about what’s on my mind- and what’s on my mind are the Great Lakes. Half the population of Wisconsin lives in the 20% of its land area that is in the Great Lakes watershed. Lake Michigan and Superior provide drinking water to 1.6 million people in Wisconsin and that water is largely returned as treated wastewater. But the reason that the Great Lakes are occupying my thoughts is an interview with Dan Egan that I attended as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival. Egan, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, has written The Death and Life of the Great Lakes which was published earlier this year. While providing a history of the lakes and crediting the Clean Water Act with improvements in water quality, Egan’s main thesis is that the Lakes have been damaged and remain under threat from invasive species.
Egan postulates that the Great Lakes have a front door: the St. Lawrence Seaway and a back door: the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. These portals have allowed in at latest count some 180 non-native species into the Great Lakes, including the sea lamprey, the alewife, zebra and quagga mussels. The motivation for the back door was a public health crisis caused by inadequate or non-existent sewage treatment. The solution to closing the back door may again be wastewater treatment to allow water to be returned to Lake Michigan that currently is diverted to the Mississippi River.
The front-door was created for the economic benefit of opening up the Great Lakes to ocean-going ships. The problem has been that these ships for many years have discharged untreated ballast water carrying the unwanted species that are now established. The impact of the mussels has been especially significant in changing the biology and chemistry of the lakes through filter feeding which clarifies the water and actually reduces productivity. However, the mussels select for toxic algae so the lakes are still vulnerable to algae blooms when excess nutrients from runoff are present. This phenomenon led to the drinking water crisis in Toledo, OH a few years ago.
The Chicago canal system and the St. Lawrence Seaway were hailed as major civil engineering success stories. We are now realizing the implications and limitations of these projects. Overseas cargo now accounts for less than 5% of the shipping on the Great Lakes- carrying primarily steel in and grain out. The Seaway is closed at least 3 months a year. The big concern at the back door of course are various types of carp, Asian silver and big head carp, and the giant black carp not far behind. It seems that each of these projects has served its purpose and it is time to close both doors to restore the biological integrity of the Great Lakes. As cited by Egan, Aldo Leopold- a notable Wisconsinite- said: “A thing is right when it tends to promote the integrity, beauty and stability of the biotic community”
Undoing over 100 years of hydraulic engineering is a major undertaking. Perhaps the immediate focus can be to better control ballast water discharges and to ramp up efforts to stop the carp.
Egan further notes that our Great Lakes will continue to be sought as water source outside of the watershed. The demand for freshwater will be persistent and likely grow in intensity. The Great Lakes Compact requires unanimous approval of the 8 states in the US for any diversion outside of the watershed. (Canada has a parallel law: states cannot enter into treaties with foreign governments). The Compact must hold to resist the demand for water in growing southern and western states.
We are stewards of the water environment and I would encourage you to read The Death and Life of the Great Lakes as something of a wake-up call to what’s happening to the biology of the Great Lakes that is not immediately apparent or well understood.
Congratulations to Dan Zitomer and Tom Sigmund on being inducted as a WEF Fellows. By the time you read this the Education Seminar will be coming up and Wisconsin Section Government Affair seminar and winter board meeting just around the corner. As always there are many opportunities to get involved in Central States, why not make 2018 your year to step up and join a committee or help plan an event. You will enjoy the connections you make and the teamwork involved in being part of the success of our organization.