Great Lakes glisten again -- but the shine may soon fade

The decade-long cooperative effort by government, industry, and citizens to clean up the Great Lakes is at last starting to pay dividends. * Lake Erie, once such a symbol of environmental decay that some predicted it could never recover, has become a new source of pride to many living near it.The lake now rates in some circles as providing the best source of walleyed pike fishing in the world.

* In Lake Ontario -- long considered by some scientists as more polluted if less publicized than Erie -- the levels of such contaminants as PCBs, DDT, and Mirex have declined significantly over the last few years.

Many of the close to 400 researchers gathered here in recent days for the 24 th conference of the International Association for Great Lakes Research prefer to talk about the research challenges ahead in the 1980s and what effect the proposed Reagan administration budget cuts of 70 to 80 percent may have on that job. But most readily admit that the gains to date in cleaning up the five lakes in America's and Canada's heartland are indisputable.

"This is the first year I feel confident in saying Lake Erie has turned the corner --that there's really been some improvement," says Charles Herdendorf of Ohio State University's (OSU) Center for Lake Erie Area Research.

"I think we've made great progress on the problems we understand," agrees Madonna McGrath of the Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes National Program in Chicago. "It's hard to find a polluted beach on the Great Lakes anymore."

Firm government regulation, including federal bans on DDT and manufactured PCBs and bans in most Great Lakes states on phosphate detergents, is given much of the credit for the improve water quality. So are the updated 1972 Water Quality Agreement between the US and Canada and Washington's hefty dollar contribution in recent years to cities building secondary sewage treatment plants.

Improved sewage treatment and the state bans on phosphates (Ohio, the home of Procter & Gamble, remains a notable exception) are considered prime factors in reducing the level of phosphorus nutrients. These get into the lakes largely through waste water and fertilizer and lead to the growth of algae that use much of the oxygen that normally would go to the water's fish population.

The key research job ahead in the 1980s, according to the scientists gathered here, is to hold the water quality gains made so far and delve into the relatively new challenge posed by the presence of toxic materials such as PCBs and other organic chloride compounds in lake water.

"We've done all the easy things -- we've taken out the big chunks such as the acids, the greases, and the oils," observes Dr. Wayland Swain, director of the EPA's Large Lakes Laboratory at Grosse Ile, Mich. "We've even begun to make progress in controlling phosphorus. But there is this whole spectrum of compounds that tend to be terribly persistent. . . . Toxics are probably the hardest challenge we've ever faced."

What most concerns many of the researchers, including Dr. Swain whose laboratory budget is slated for zero help from Washington as of October, is what effect the proposed sharp federal cutbacks will have on the job that needs to be done.

"The net dollar decline is close to being disastrous," insists Dr. Richard L. Thomas, president of the International Association for Great Lakes Research. He recently sent a letter of protest to President Reagan on behalf of the association's board of directors.

Some researchers here say they are worried that the magnitude of the proposed cuts will not only stop forward motion but erode progress made to date.

"We've initiated all the right moves, and we're just beginning to see some of the returns, but we're going to have to keep up the fight for much longer if we want to see any change that is permanent," insists Noel M. Burns of the National Water Research Institute in Burlington, Ontario.

The scientists gathered here range from chemists to biologists. The tie that binds is the Great Lakes, and many researchers speak of their work on particular lakes with obvious special affection.

Dr. Thomas, who is with the Great Lakes Biolimnology Laboratory of Canada's Center for Inland Waters, for instance, describes Lake Ontario as a small lake of "extreme" beauty. "It's just perfection," he says, adding that its supply of salmon is now enough "so you can walk across it on the backs of the fish."

Dr. Swain, who has traveled extensively in the Soviet Union in connection with a U.S.-Soviet joint effort in freshwater research, says that youngsters there tend to refer to Siberia's Lake Baikal, the deepest and largest freshwater lake in the world, as a priceless national resource. By contrast, he says, few American children coming through his lab in Michigan can name all five lakes -- "let alone refer to them as a national treasure." Yet in his view the shortage of water in the West could one day make Great Lakes water as "valuable as OPEC oil," and the sooner Americans and Washington realize it, the better."We're not heirs -- we're custodians, looking out for the lakes for future generations."

Still, some of the specialists who do research affecting the Great Lakes say they think that some of the Washington cuts may yet be restored and that in any case some of the toxic substance research will proceed. Madonna McGrath, for instance, says that most of the $3.9 million still budgeted for her agency with the cuts will go for toxic research.

"It's not fair to say it won't get done, but it will certainly go more slowly ," says Andrew Robertson of the Great Lakes Environmental Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.

While many of the researchers interviewed here say that business and foundation funding is not a feasible substitute for federal research dollars in many cases, some like Ohio's Dr. Herdendorf say the signs of a falloff in water quality funding have been apparent over the last few years. Researchers, he suggests, could well afford to heed the message with a slight shift in direction.

"I'm not saying we should neglect water quality, but perhaps we should look more at how we might use the many resources of the lake in safe ways that still safeguard the environment," he says.

Noting that some of his center's research efforts are funded by public utilities and other business interests, he cites the existence of gas and oil under Lake Erie as well as gypsum and two large salt mines.

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