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New Report Explores Issues Facing The Great Lakes, Proposes Solutions

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
Lake Michigan

A special commission representing Canada and the United States released a report Tuesday morning about efforts to restore and protect the Great Lakes.

The group, called the International Joint Commission or IJC, has been around for over a century and is tasked with preventing conflicts between the two countries over shared waters.

The Great Lakes swallows up a lot of the commission’s attention.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
Commissioner Lana Pollack at the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences in October, 2016. It was one of places the IJC gathered scientific and public comments as the report was drafted.

U.S. commissioner Lana Pollack says the IJC's new report looks at progress made over the last three years on issues facing the basin and offers recommendations on further action.

Pollack has looked at Great Lakes issues through different lenses over her career. In the 1980s and early '90s, she was a Michigan state Senator. Later she presided over the Michigan Environmental Council.

Then, in 2010 Pollack was appointed chair of the U.S. section of the IJC.

Pollack says its three-year deep dive into what ails and what’s improving in the Great Lakes has been eye-opening.

The Joint Commission gathered the latest science and talked with residents on the U.S. and Canadian side of the basin. Pollack says the resulting 180-plus page report hones in on what ends up in the lakes that has no business being there.

She says in part, it's caused by governments that have not kept up with infrastructure.

“We looked at the increasing intensity of storms and storm water runoff and the impact that has in many cities that don’t have the infrastructure to handle that kind of runoff. A lot of sewage, a massive amount of sewage – untreated raw sewage, or partially treated sewage, gets dumped into each of the Great Lakes.” Pollack adds, “That’s very high on the list.”

This conversation with U.S. commissioner Lana Pollack aired November 28 on Lake Effect.

Pollack says the report acknowledges efforts to reduce phosphorus that finds its way into streams that feed into the basin and directly into the Great Lakes. Yet she says efforts must become more aggressive.

“These are things that people actually understand. You don’t need a PhD in bioscience to understand that it’s wrong to allow and not penalize farmers who spread manure on frozen ground,” she says. “ The voluntary programs don’t work.””

According to the IJC report, a growing list of toxic pollutants threaten human, wildlife and aquatic organisms.

“And in that case the report turns to what we call extended producer responsibility which turns the responsibility for the contaminant back to the producer of that product, who are then encouraged – by virtue of that economic incentive – to find alternative products that may not have the kind of negative health impacts,” Pollack explains.

"At the heart of it is something much simpler - stop putting this stuff in our water. We know where it's coming from, we know what it does, and we know how to stop it. And that's a problem of policy and political will."

The report calls on Great Lakes governments to accelerate efforts and set long term visionary goals to prevent further harm.

Yet, Pollack does not paint a doom and gloom picture.

She points to the Great Lakes Restoration initiative, or GLRI, that has fueled more than 3,000 projects. Not long ago advocates feared President Trump would eliminate the program

Pollack says a bipartisan voice rose to continue the GLRI, “because Republican legislators and Democratic legislators alike understand the importance of the Great Lakes to the quality of life, the public health and the economy of their individual districts."

Ultimately Pollack believes the fate of the Great Lakes rests with the passion and voices of citizens who share the basin.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>