Environment: Comeback for the Great Lakes

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After decades of abuse, they are getting cleaner

"Lake Erie is a dead lake. Save the rest of the Great Lakes." So went the environmentalists' plaint during the 1960s. Lake Erie was not, in fact, quite dead, but it was suffering from a variety of serious disorders, including a seemingly uncheckable algae growth that, like a fast-spreading cancer, was choking off the other forms of life. Though the remaining four of North America's great chain of lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron and Ontario—were less diseased, they too showed symptoms of serious, man-made illness.

The Cuyahoga River, emptying into Lake Erie, was so laden with oil and debris that it twice caught fire. Masses of dead alewives washed ashore in Lake Michigan, fouling beaches. Tangles of Cladophora, a smelly freshwater seaweed, clogged other beaches. Commercial fisheries, which had long flourished on the lakes, perhaps a bit too aggressively, began closing for lack of good fish and fear of DDT and mercury contamination.

Sports fishermen had largely given up on the lakes, as stocks of walleyed pike, lake trout and other game species disappeared.

The hulls of pleasure boats were discolored by discharges from the steel plants of Gary, Ind., the oil refineries of Hamilton, Ont., and the paper mills of Green Bay, Wis. Raw sewage was regularly added to the noxious brew. Said a 1970 joint U.S.-Canadian report: "Approximately one-third of the United States shoreline [on Lake Erie] is either continuously or intermittently fouled with bacterial contamination."

The growing pollution of the Great Lakes was not only an aesthetic and commercial tragedy. More than 29 million Americans and 9 million Canadians (more than a third of Canada's population) live in the Great Lakes basin. The lakes contain 95% of the U.S. supply of fresh water in lakes and reservoirs and 20% of the world's; they supply drinking water for 23.5 million Americans. Clearly, something had to be done.

It was. In the past decade, international commissions have been formed, endless stacks of reports written, legislation passed, bans enforced, and billions of dollars spent on facilities to clean the waste water that was being dumped into the lakes. As a result, even environmentalists are optimistic about the future of the waters. Says G. Keith Rogers, a scientist at the Canada Center for Inland Waters: "Previously people were saying 'How can we stop the lakes from getting worse?' Now we are seriously talking about rehabilitating the lakes to their original state."

Much of the easier, partly cosmetic work has been accomplished. The globs of oil, the multicolored industrial discharges, the flotsam from shoreline cities, the fecal and bacterial wastes are no longer dumped in the lakes in vast quantities. According to the International Joint Commission, the group overseeing the U.S.-Canadian agreements to clean up the waters, more than 600 of the 864 major dischargers into the Great Lakes now meet the tough new water-quality regulations. In the past ten years U.S. and Canadian municipalities have spent more than $5 billion to improve sewage treatment plants. Industries, often prod! ded by injunctions and fines, have spent billions more.

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