NPCA's Tom Martin explains need for new Great Lakes restoration effort

This week, a coalition of state, local and federal officials outlined a new plan to restore the Great Lakes by upgrading sewer systems, fighting invasive species and targeting toxic sediment. Tom Martin, executive vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, joins OnPoint to explain what needs to happen for that plan to become a reality. He details the financial commitments that the Bush administration and Congress will need to make, plus a look at the work ahead for the U.S. EPA. Also, he explains how Great Lakes recovery is becoming an increasingly important political issue in the Midwest.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today to talk about the Great Lakes is Tom Martin. He's the executive vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association. Tom thanks a lot for being here today.

Tom Martin: Thanks Brian, good to be here.

Brian Stempeck: Earlier this week we saw a major new agreement announced near the Great Lakes area talking about a new way to protect the lakes. Talk about what we saw.

Tom Martin: You know the most important thing that we saw was all of the different stakeholders in the lakes coming together in one place saying, "This is the plan. These are the elements we all have to work together on if we are going to restore the lakes." You had the federal agencies there represented by EPA administrator Johnson. You had Congress there represented by two Republicans, Vern Ehlers and Mark Kirk and Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat. You had a number of other federal agency officials, but you had a governor representing all the Great Lakes governors, Bob Taft was there. And you had the tribes. So you've got Congress, you've got the states and then you had Mayor Daley representing the local government officials. So all of the stakeholders that are going to have to work to solve the lakes were sitting in one room at one time agreeing to one set of objectives. That was terrific.

Brian Stempeck: Now this has been a pretty long process. This has been going on for about a year now, looking at how to best protect the lakes. What are the top things they're looking at in terms of threats to these ecosystems?

Tom Martin: All right, the top of the list, the first kind of common sense steps you can take to protect the lakes. First we still have raw sewage running into the Great Lakes. You know this is the kind of thing that you think about in a developing world, you don't think about in a country like ours. But there's about $13 billion worth of sewage treatment projects that need to get done to eliminate sewage in the lakes. Secondly, exotic species, things like the zebra mussel have moved into the lakes. They've changed the ecosystem enormously. They cost tens of millions of dollars for power plants and for drinking water folks. And you know what, it's largely preventable. So that's the second thing they see working on. A third thing is some of the really important buffer wetlands have disappeared. And looking at wetlands restoration is really important, particularly to folks who are in this for hunting and birding communities. Those are really important to get done and obviously the ecosystem cleansing values they provide are really important. And then finally there's some toxic hotspots in the lakes. There's still some fish in the lakes that folks say you shouldn't eat if you're a pregnant woman or a kid. And we are to get that one licked too.

Brian Stempeck: We'll get into the details of these issues in the second, but the main question right now is the funding for this. Last summer we saw the Bush administration outline, a plan $20 billion over 15 years.

Tom Martin: Yeah.

Brian Stempeck: Now we saw the governors come out with some more money that they want to pledge towards this. How realistic is it that we're going to see the full funding for these different pledges go towards the lakes?

Tom Martin: Well, that is the $20 billion question, no question about it. The good news, first you had all of the folks that need to put money on the table sitting there saying this is the plan. Secondly you've had administrator Johnson last year request, and the administration support, full funding of the Great Lakes Legacy Act. So that was a positive step forward. Most importantly though, the people that appropriate, members of Congress from this region, are incredibly excited on both sides of the aisle at making the kind of needed investments. Now they're going to need the states and the mayors as partners, but it looks like they're going to be there. So I'm optimistic. Where are we going to see it? I think first place to look is the president's budget. If it's not there at the end of January, beginning of February, that would be a bad sign. I expect though there will be some step up there. Secondly, what does Congress do with it? Do they take that as a starting point? Do they increase it? And finally, what are the governors and state legislatures doing to make sure that the state matches are there? So those would be the things I'd look for.

Brian Stempeck: It seems like with a lot of these programs that come out with massive funding expenditures, it seems like usually only some of the money gets put towards the cause. Assuming that that happens again and we see say half of the money goes towards the Great Lakes, what do you think are the top priorities that need to be dealt with from your perspective? I mean you talk about working with a lot of the national parks that kind of surround the Great Lakes.

Tom Martin: Yeah, I mean I certainly, the reason the National Parks Conservation Association cares about restoration of the Great Lakes, the reason it's so important to us, is if you look at some of the signature national parks in this country, Sleeping Bear National Dune, Isle Royal, the Apostle Islands, these are places whose ecosystems are absolutely dependent on a restored Great Lakes. So we see that as really important. And there are some common sense, easy to do, first steps. It's not rocket science to figure out how to treat your sewage appropriately. That's easy to do. That's just good engineering and putting enough concrete and biological treatment in place. It's not rocket science to figure out how to target toxic hotspots and get them out of there. Again, these are pretty simple steps, common sense first steps that folks can take. And I expect that that's where we'll begin.

Brian Stempeck: One of the tougher problems is invasive species, as you mentioned, some of those zebra mussels, other types of fish there in the lakes that cause all sorts of problems. And one of the recent suggestions, there's a study that came out yesterday from a University of Michigan talking about maybe we can close down the St. Lawrence seaway to a lot of the shipping traffic. That seems to be the main route for the invasive species come into the lakes. Do you think that's a viable solution as you look at this problem?

Tom Martin: Closing down the St. Lawrence seaway seems to me to be a bit extreme. I used to work for a sailor's outfit and one of the things that happens when a ship comes into a narrow channel or a difficult place is you bring a pilot onboard. And the pilot actually takes over driving the ship to make sure that there's not a problem. It's not very hard to put a biological pilot onboard to go make sure the ballast water gets treated and expelled at the appropriate place. That seems to me to be a far more sensible solution that protects the lake's ecosystem and it protects the economy in the region.

Brian Stempeck: You know one of the key issues here, as you mentioned, is there was members of Congress at the event this week, is going to be convincing Congress that in this time where we're paying for a war, we're paying for hurricanes, that they also want to spend this kind of money in the Great Lakes. How do you make that case? It seems like I know one good thing to talk about is some of the economic ramifications of the damage to the Great Lakes.

Tom Martin: Yeah, there's no question about it. It's one of these things, you either pay the piper now or you pay the piper a lot more later. We saw in Katrina some of the horrendous costs of losing coastal wetlands, coastal barrier islands. And again, the damage was far more severe because that stuff was gone. If you look in the Great Lakes, last Thursday a group of scientists from around the Great Lakes termed the lakes on the verge of collapse. That's what their research tells them. And I think there's some indicators of that as you begin to see changes in the food chain, as you begin to see different critters doing well in the lakes and different critters doing badly. You begin to see their vulnerability really rise to the top. So if you take a look at why do you invest now? You invest now because you can, in a relatively cheap way, protect 20% of the world's fresh surface water. Waiting means a lot more money.

Brian Stempeck: What's the role for the EPA right now? I mean you talked about the invasive species, the high bacteria counts in the lakes with the toxic problems. What's the role for the agency to step up there?

Tom Martin: Well I think the first thing the agency has to do is they've got to become a darn effective in-fighter to make sure that enough money is secured that we solve the problems now. Secondly, they need to work collectively and collaboratively with the states and local governments to make sure that the projects that get the most bang for the buck, controlling sewage and removing toxic hotspots, happens. The third thing they need to do is they really need to weigh in on the fight to prevent more invasion of national aquatic and invasive species. You know Steve Johnson, the EPA administrator, did say at the event on Monday that they were going to finish the Asian carp barrier. Another thing they could do is agree to take over the funding of the operation and maintenance. Why is that important? Well the Asian carp are moving up the Mississippi. If they come up the Illinois ship canal and get into the Great Lakes they're going to further disrupt an already disrupted ecosystem.

Brian Stempeck: One of the other things that the local officials looked at was the idea of drinking water. There's kind of a threat coming from the southwest, one of the fast growing areas in the United States, looking for new supplies of clean drinking water and the Great Lakes is one of them. The governor has also reached an agreement on that. Talk about that a little bit in terms of how that problem is being addressed.

Tom Martin: You know it was really great to see this group of governors take the next step that governors started 20 years ago. And that's to protect the management of the water quantity in the Great Lakes. You've got eight states, you've got two Canadian provinces, you've got two countries, all of whom share governance over the lakes and how that water gets used with every local government, every drinking water agency that's around. Seeing them come together and say look, we need some clear ground rules that are going to ensure that the water quantity in these lakes is protected and managed so that we can conserve them for future generations. The agreement that they signed on Tuesday is a really important step towards implementing that. Right now federal law says a diversion out of a Great Lakes basin is veto-able by a governor in any other state. That was passed in '86. This really talks about the needed conservation measures, the needed management measures and really sort of turns up the integrated management to ensure that water quantity is there for future generations.

Brian Stempeck: One last question for you Tom because we're running out of time, but over the course of the next year, beyond the funding, what steps are you going to be looking for seeing from EPA, from the White House, in terms of seeing if this commitment is being matched?

Tom Martin: Well certainly funding is top of the heap. And the governors and mayors said 300 million is the right number. I don't know if that's exactly the right number, but it sure as heck is a good place to start.

Brian Stempeck: This is money in the FY '07 budget?

Tom Martin: FY '07 budget. Secondly, I'd look and see what are the governor saying in their campaigns? This is a politically really important region of the country. I mean if you look at where the states are that were in play in the last presidential election, the purple states in America tend to be along the Great Lakes. So is this a big issue in the governor's races? Is it a big issue in the Senate races? Boy, I'd sure want to know that. And I'd look at that. And then if I were a presidential candidate and I were looking for an issue that let me cut all across those purple states, those important primary caucus states and as well, those general election states, I'd be looking for a way to express my interest in Great Lakes issues.

Brian Stempeck: All right Tom, we're out of time. Thanks for being on the show.

Tom Martin: Great, thanks Brian.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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