Let’s worry more about the Great Lakes

Remember HOMES: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior — the acronym we learned as kids? But did we ever learn how important and unique these five lakes are?

Carved by retreating glaciers 20,000 years ago and still containing glacier meltwater, they contain 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water, serving 40 million people and supporting a $7 billion fishing industry.

They’re bordered by eight states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York — and one humongous province, Ontario. Many Native-American tribes have historical ties to the Lakes and concern for their health.

The Welland Canal bypasses Niagara Falls and allows access to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Atlantic, and canals connect to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, thus to the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of cargo ships, lakebound “lakers” and ocean-going “salties,” carry mostly iron ore, coal and grain. I thought grain was primary, but found it’s only 7 percent of tonnage (but hey, iron ore is heavier). Oceangoing container ships transfer at Montreal, and river cargo traffic is limited to barges.

In the 1940s and ’50s I grew up in Niagara Falls, between Lakes Erie and Ontario, swam and fished in both lakes and the Niagara River (carefully), and must admit never really thought about threats to them. Then.

Now, however, we frequently hear about water quality, algae blooms in Lake Erie, and invasive species. Problems abound because the lakes naturally spawned large polluting industrial cities, and an estimated 160 non-native species have been introduced by ocean-going ships — some of which threaten the fishing industry.

Like most environmental issues, there’s conflict between industry and protection. There are dozens of committees and proposals for protection and solution, most of which seem to operate well behind the curve. On the Internet I counted over 50 concerned public, private, and academic organizations, most of which are at least ostensibly balanced.

Balanced? Quoting from their goals: “shared ideals of environmental quality and economic growth,” “programs that benefit the environmental and economic growth,” “orderly and integrated development and conservation.” I’m not sure of the balance; as they say, follow the money.

Short-term development and shipping vie with long-term sustainability and health. In any case, millions are being spent to monitor and study the problems, and billions are projected just to keep the lakes alive, their shipping profitable, their fish plentiful and edible, and their water swimmable and potable. History indicates that short-term economic gain usually trumps long-term sustainability. I hope history is wrong.

There’s common ground: Some invasives are hurting both sides and water quality is a universal and growing concern. But there’s lots of disagreement about what to do. We need to pay attention whenever we hear the Lakes discussed, and help focus the national will. Much of the country mistakenly looks at the Great Lakes as a local issue. California and New York think the entire Midwest is something to fly over en route, and most Washington politicians probably can’t even name the Lakes. HOMES, remember?

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David Shumway is one of our regular community contributors.

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