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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.

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The first grants were awarded late last summer, and many projects are just now getting under way. The pike project, which started in 2008 with different funding, is continuing with $396,000 from the EPA.

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Other projects:

•Researchers are measuring the ecological health of more than 1,000 coastal wetlands across the lakes. "Nothing like this has ever been attempted – anything of this scope," says Donald Uzarski, director of Central Michigan University's Institute for Great Lakes Research.

•Scientists are developing ways for government agencies to assess the risk of importing nonnative plants and animals. Trade in live organisms is an often-overlooked entryway for invaders – and is virtually unregulated, says David Lodge, director of the University of Notre Dame's Center for Aquatic Conservation, which is researching ways to assess this.

•A campaign in several states urges agencies, schools, and the public to reduce the amount of chemicals that find their way into the lakes – and the drinking water – from medicines, cosmetics, and other personal care products. On a recent Saturday, Erie, Pa., collected 84 pounds of unwanted medicines. "There is no easy way to dispose of medications you don't want anymore other than to flush them or put them in the trash, and these aren't good ideas," says Marti Martz, a coastal outreach specialist at Pennsylvania Sea Grant.

What good are these efforts? Scien­tists caution that restoration in any strict sense is probably impossible. Four centuries of settlement have changed the lakes so dramatically that no amount of money or effort can return them to what they were, they say. Even some of the newest problems defy solution. Zebra and quagga mussels have colonized expanses of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, for instance, eliminating whole food webs. Scientists say they see no way to control them.

Nonetheless, they argue that restoration efforts can make the lakes ecologically healthier, more resilient, and better able to absorb new shocks, including climate change and invasion by more nonnative species. Economists and policymakers also see economic benefits in rehabilitation. A 2007 Brookings Institution report predicts $50 billion in long-term economic benefits from rehabilitating the Great Lakes.

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