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Fed Up With the Feds, Locals Take On Great Lakes Cleanup

By Mary ThompsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 2, 1996



ASHLAND, WIS.

The promise of summer picnics, canoe trips, and fishing draws 500,000 people a year to the sandy banks of the Boardman River, a blue-ribbon trout stream that feeds into Lake Michigan.

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But the tourists and retirees creating the area's population surge are unknowingly exacting an environmental price. Heavy tourism scours topsoil and vegetation from river banks, and rain storms flush lawn fertilizers, orchard pesticides, and oily residues from roads and parking lots into the river that carries it all to the shallow waters of Grand Traverse Bay, a 32-mile finger jutting inland from Lake Michigan.

No longer plagued by large-scale industrial waste dumping, Great Lakes cities are struggling to control these broader, less defined contaminants known as non-point source pollution.

While the US Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada consider non-point source pollution one of the greatest threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem, officials say current federal laws don't address the problem. But instead of writing new laws or trying to untangle the priorities of the eight state and two provincial governments bordering the Lakes, the US and Canada are looking to small, innovative local programs to meet the challenge.

"The easy problems have been solved. The rest will have to be solved at a local level," says Kent Fuller, a senior adviser with the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office. "People will have to consider the chemicals they buy. They will have to deal with issues like wildlife habitat."

The Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Initiative, a nationally recognized model of community-based environmental restoration and protection, is typical of the new movement. Formed in 1990, the coalition of more than 120 local business owners, civic groups, and government agencies was determined to save the Boardman River.

Their $300,000 war chest to replace stream banks and fish habitat was matched by an EPA grant and funded restoration of 92 sections of eroded river bank. The project is one of more than 50 that has inspired local citizens, especially more than 600 school children who collected water samples from lakes and streams last spring.

While many of the Initiative's programs are voluntary, local governments around Traverse City are passing laws to protect Lake Michigan. To catch parking lot run-off, commercial developers must install stormwater ponds, which keep heavy metals out of Grand Traverse Bay and serve as resting points for migratory birds.

'MOST people want to do what's right. They just don't realize the impact of their actions," says Steve Largent, who coordinated the Boardman restoration for the Grand Traverse Conservation District.

The EPA and Environment Canada recognize local groups who "do what's right," most recently at a State of the Great Lakes Ecosystem Conference in Windsor, Ontario, last month. An effort by Toronto residents who planted 24,000 trees along the Don River and the Northern Indiana Public Service Company's restoration of prairie and wetland habitats along the Calumet River were honored.

In Cleveland, OH, civic leaders are using this community-based approach to clean up the Cuyahoga River, which feeds into Lake Erie. In 1969, oil-soaked debris on the river caught fire, prompting Congress to pass the Clean Water Act, which gave the EPA legal authority to order clean-ups.

Today Cleveland's riverfront boasts parks, but the city remains one of the 42 most polluted sites on the Great Lakes and still struggles with PCB-laden sediment and lost wildlife habitat.

The Cuyahoga Coordinating Committee, a group of industry, civic, and government leaders, took on the job eight years ago. So far, their biggest challenge has been restoring public faith in the local environment.

"I'm beginning to see a change in people's vision and expectations," says Mary Beth Binns, a committee employee. "People are beginning to envision a time when the river can and will look different."