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Bid to repair Lake Michigan and Great Lakes, one marsh at a time

A $2 billion restoration effort may help rehabilitate Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, but environmentalists say it may be too late to reverse four centuries' worth of damage.

By Richard Mertens / June 13, 2011

Mike Mushinski, a technician with the pike project, holds a northern pike that swam up from Green Bay, in Lake Michigan, to spawn in Suamico, Wis., in a restored wetland.

Richard Mertens

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Suamico, Wis.

Shod in knee-high rubber boots, Jim Jolly sloshes through shin-deep water, searching for fish. This tangle of submerged grass "is kind of what they're looking for," says Mr. Jolly, a Brown County conservation official.

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Each spring northern pike, long, slender game fish with razor teeth, leave the open waters of Lake Michigan. They ascend rain-swollen creeks and ditches to lay their eggs in marshes and other flooded lowlands.

It's a difficult trip, both going and coming back. But farming and other activities have made it still harder by destroying wetlands and eliminating many spawning areas. Here on the soggy western shore of Green Bay, an arm of Lake Michigan, nearly three-quarters of the wetlands have disappeared since white settlers arrived in the 19th century.

Now, with the government's help, conservationists and landowners are trying to make it easier for the pike. Using backhoes and bulldozers, they are scooping out and reconnecting degraded wetlands in a bid to restore some traditional spawning areas. They hope to boost the number of pike, a native predator that is common but not nearly as abundant as it once was. At the same time, they hope to help rehabilitate Green Bay, one of the most damaged bodies of water on the Great Lakes.

"Everything you see under water was excavated," says Jolly of the little grass-choking wetland he's exploring. From a fish's perspective, he says, this marsh just off a county highway is nearly perfect.

The pike project is a small part of a five-year, $2.1 billion federal effort to reverse the environmental decline of the Great Lakes. Administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is paying for hundreds of projects across the region, from habitat restoration to campaigns for ecologically sensitive lawn care.

The initiative is the most ambitious effort to improve the Great Lakes since governments spent billions to upgrade sewage treatment plants starting in the 1970s. It comes even as scientists warn that the lakes are careening toward "ecosystem breakdown" in some places, to quote a 2005 report.

The project has "been a long time coming and a long time needed," says Joel Brammeier, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, an influential environmental group. "This region has built up decades of hurt."

The initiative targets a wide range of chronic problems: invasive species (more than 180 nonnative plants and animals have colonized the lakes); toxic chemicals from the region's industrial past; destruction of marshes, damming of rivers, and other habitat loss; and pollution from agricultural runoff, sewage overflows, and other sources.

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