ON environmental issues, the Great Lakes region has a spirit of cooperation born of a sense of accomplishment over past successes. ``If you told somebody in 1968, say, that within 10 years Lake Erie was not going to have algae blooms, and was going to have millions of fishermen out there hunting millions of walleye ... nobody would have bought that,'' says Paul Botts. ``And yet it was done.''
But Mr. Botts, who edits a think-tank newsletter on Great Lakes environmental policy, notes that that success came in treating ``conventional'' pollution like phosphates and sewage. Far more difficult will be the current No. 1 challenge: toxics. Dealing with that will require countries, eight states, two provinces, and thousands of municipalities whose jurisdictions overlap in the 300,000-square-mile basin.
The region's significance as an ecosystem is matched by its importance as an economic unit. The lakes hold one-fifth of the world's surface fresh water, and 95 percent of North America's.
More than 10 percent of Americans and 25 percent of Canadians, totaling 35 million people, live in the basin. Some 26 million draw their drinking water from the lakes. Agriculture and industry are heavily concentrated there, with total economic activity exceeding $200 billion a year.
The lakes have other ecological problems, notably zebra mussels (see sidebar). But Judith Stockdale, executive director of the Great Lakes Protection fund, dismisses the mollusk as ``the buzz of the moment. Persistent toxic contamination is much more serious.''
Here's why: Since World War II industry has released thousands of new synthetic chemical compounds into the environment, of which 30,000 can be found in the Great Lakes. None are present in quantities that would be instantly lethal, but they can be very harmful. And the compounds don't break down.
A process called bioaccumulation magnifies the risk. Small organisms take in toxics and pass them on to whatever eats them, and so on up the food chain. In this way, concentrations of toxic substances can be 1 million times higher in fish than in water. A person who eats one meal of lake trout from Lake Michigan will be exposed to more polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than in a lifetime of drinking the lake's water.
The effects on wildlife include deformities and an inability to reproduce. Isolated studies on humans indicate a relationship between mothers who eat lake fish and babies with neurological disorders and low birthweights.
Cooperation among the United States and Canada over Great Lakes issues dates back to 1909. And the clear need for consultation on water issues led the states and provinces to enter into the Great Lakes Charter of 1985, an unprecedented legal commitment. Last spring the governors founded the Protection Fund, a $100 million endowment for environmental research.
Ms. Stockdale calls the Great Lakes community ``amazingly cooperative.'' Mr. Botts agrees that the region has become a model for dealing with joint environmental concerns that others are seeking to emulate.
BUT more could be done, he says. A key goal is zero discharge of toxics in the basin - something the Canadian and US governments agreed to in 1978. ``Progress toward zero discharge has been awfully damn slow,'' Botts says. ``And there is a growing impatience.''
One proposal before the two nations, from their advisory body called the International Joint Commission, is to strive for zero discharge around Lake Superior first.
Meanwhile, Botts says, ``We see some really encouraging signs of life from the EPA on these issues.'' Whereas former President Reagan ``gave the EPA the decade off,'' self-described environmental president George Bush appointed William Reilly to head the agency. Mr. Reilly helped get language into the new Clean Air Act that the Great Lakes states wanted, and has set a goal of reducing toxic emissions by 50 percent in the basin by 1994.
``We're talking about a number by a date,'' says a satisfied Botts. ``That is a big step.''
That will still leave all the atmospheric toxic fallout from outside the basin. Substances long banned in the US and Canada but legal elsewhere, like the pesticide DDT, are borne on the wind from as far away as Brazil. Thus, as far advanced as cooperation in the Great Lakes region is, the ultimate answer may be global.
``We have this feeling that we can take things elsewhere and dump things elsewhere and it won't affect us,'' Stockdale says. ``We can stay clean and lovely.''
``Of course, we can't. It's one little planet.''