Week of 04/18/10

Dear EarthTalk: What are the major threats to the Great Lakes in the United States and what’s being done to address them?

—Saul G., Racine, WI

The Great Lakes watershed is a unique and important ecosystem that contains some 95 percent of America’s fresh water surface area, and is a continental hub for birds, fish and other wildlife. According to the National Audubon Society, the Great Lakes provide habitat for some 400 bird species. But it is the region’s exploding human population—now at 42 million—that is causing many environmental problems.

Major threats include toxic and nutrient pollution, the growing presence of non-native invasive species, and the destruction of critical wildlife habitat. In addition, the region’s residents worry that other parts of the country and world facing water shortages will find ways to divert Great Lakes water to quench their far-off thirsts. Also, it remains to be seen what kind of impact global warming will have on the region.

Perhaps the issue that gets the most attention in the region is the menace of invasive species. They arrive via heel, tire, railway and ship, and are profoundly altering the region’s ecology. The most notorious case is that of the zebra mussel which, originally native to southeast Russia first arrived in the late 1980s on ocean-going ships via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Aside from outcompeting native species for food, they have absorbed toxic PCBs dumped years earlier and transferred them up the food chain in being eaten by round gobies (also a non-native species), which in turn are preyed upon by walleyes, a popular sport fish.

Havoc wreaked by invasive species is one of the biggest problems facing the Great Lakes. Zebra mussels, pictured here and originally native to southeast Russia, have colonized the lakes, absorbing toxic PCBs dumped years earlier and transferring the chemicals up the food chain into the tissues of walleyes, a popular sport fish.© Andres Musta, courtesy Flickr

Another major problem is pollution itself. Tons of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers run off of farms and into the water every month. Coal-fired power plants spew mercury into the air and factories of all kinds emit other pollutants that all eventually end up in the water. Converting farmers to organic agriculture and cleaning up smokestacks are top priorities for regulators and green groups in the region.

Federal, state and local authorities and nonprofit and community groups are working diligently to help restore compromised areas in the region. The Obama administration’s 2010 budget allocates $475 million to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Initiative is assessing the threats to the region and laying out a roadmap for remediation through the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, which includes representatives from the EPA as well as the departments of State, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development.

Some of the beneficiaries of this funding will also be some of the 100+ nonprofit and community groups that have formed the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition. These groups hope to leverage each others" expertise and work together on on-the-ground restoration projects throughout the region.

Meanwhile Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Quebec and Ontario have come together as the Great Lakes Basin Compact to ward off drought-stricken far-off places from taking fresh water out of their region. Member states and provinces have delineated a border around the region beyond which water cannot be shipped. The agreement came about in 2005 when a Canadian company announced that it wanted to ship water in tankers from Lake Ontario to Asia.

CONTACTS: Great Lakes Restoration Initiative; Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition; Great Lakes Basin Compact

Dear EarthTalk: What is "smart growth" and how does it benefit the environment? And what are the downsides, if any?

—Frank Quinn, Missoula, MT

The smart growth approach attempts to minimize automobile traffic and its pollution in urban centers by including stores, residences and schools in neighborhoods, resulting in more walking, bicycle riding and mass transit usage than in a typical suburban environment. Pictured: Retail and housing in San Diego, California on the site of a former Sears store.© Faceless B, courtesy Flickr

Originating in the early 1970s when city planners began renovating crumbling inner cities in the face of widespread suburbanization and sprawl, smart growth is now a top buzzword in both municipal policy and environmental circles. Some form of smart growth has likely been implemented where you live or somewhere nearby.

Urban planners subscribing to a smart growth philosophy work to concentrate growth in the center of existing cities and towns to avoid sprawling development in areas otherwise prized for open space. Part of a smart growth effort attempts to minimize automobile traffic and its pollution in urban centers by including stores, residences and schools in neighborhoods, resulting in more walking, bicycle riding and mass transit usage than in a typical suburban environment. Advocates maintain that smart growth initiatives create a unique sense of community and place, give people more transportation, employment and housing choices, and equitably distribute the costs and benefits of development while preserving and enhancing natural beauty, cultural resources and public health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been a big smart growth booster since it formed the Smart Growth Network in 1996. Partners include environmental and historic preservation groups, professional organizations, developers, real estate interests, and local and state government entities. The network serves as a forum for educating the public and policymakers about the benefits of smart growth and fostering idea sharing and community among practitioners and advocates of smart growth planning.

Partly thanks to the Smart Growth Network, smart growth initiatives are numerous across the U.S. today. Denver, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Chicago and dozens of other metropolitan areas have experienced urban renewal in the last two decades thanks to planning that has taken into account livability, sustainability and preservation of open space. Communications channels facilitated via the Smart Growth Network enable the successes and failures of previous smart growth initiatives to be learning tools for planning new ones.

Smart growth is not without its detractors. According to Todd Litman of the Canadian-based Victoria Transport Policy Institute, "small government" conservatives and libertarians criticize smart growth for infringing on freedom by instituting complicated layers of regulation over development plans, increasing traffic congestion and air pollution, reducing the affordability of urban housing while forcing locals out and creating undesirable levels of density, and requiring wasteful transit subsidies, among other beefs.

Even the environmental community is somewhat divided. The majority view some development and expansion as inevitable (especially with human population always on the upswing)—and in that light embrace smart growth as a realistic lesser of possible evils. But a smaller segment of greens questions whether any development—smart or otherwise—is good for a given region’s natural systems. But while such debates may rage on at universities and think tanks, smart growth is already becoming the standard lens through which development projects are judged in the majority of our metropolitan areas.

CONTACTS: EPA; Smart Growth Network; Todd Litman’s “Evaluating Criticism of Smart Growth”.

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