Tag Archives: combined sewage overflows

Officials “need to know people are concerned about the Great Lakes”

Earlier this week, Rust Wire was thrilled to chat with Great Lakes journalist Jeff Alexander, author of Pandora’s Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway. The book details how opening the Great Lakes to international shipping traffic via the Seaway allowed a number of invasive species in that have hurt the Lakes. I recommend the book for anyone who is interested in understanding more about the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem and the changes it has undergone in the last several decades. -KG

RW: “Could you start out by telling me a bit about yourself? Are you a native of Michigan? What lead to your interest in the Great Lakes?”
JA: “Actually, I’m a native of Los Angeles. I came to Michigan in 1980 to go to school at Michigan State University. I had this crazy dream of being a pro hockey player. So, I tried to walk on the hockey team. I didn’t make it, but I liked Michigan and so I sort of fell into journalism and then sort of fell into environmental journalism in the late 80s. I didn’t know anything about the Great Lakes before I moved here, and over time, you know you go camping, go to the beach on the Great Lakes, and I just sort of, developed this affection for the Lakes. And from a reporting standpoint, was just really intrigued and interested in all the science and human drama involved with the Lakes and some of the problems they face.”

RW: “As someone who reads a lot of Great Lakes news, there is so much now- Asian carp, Asian carp, Asian carp. But one of the things I really liked about your book was that it explains there have been a lot of different invasive species and a lot of threats to the Great Lakes. Could you outline some of the things that have damaged the Lakes?”
JA: “Well, the first really bad actor was the sea lamprey (pictured below), which got into Lake Ontario through the Erie Canal and then got into the other Great Lakes through the Welland Canal. That was because they wanted to bypass Niagara Falls, which was this great natural barrier and protector for the Great Lakes. The thing I found really interesting is that by the late 1940s, the sea lamprey was just doing a number on the native fisheries of the Great Lakes. And when they started to build the Seaway, no one sort of asked the question, ‘If the sea lamprey caused all these problems, by getting in through these canals, what might happen if we allow ocean freighters from around the world to come to the Great Lakes?’ As far as I can tell, no one ever raised that question or discussed it. And you know, it was 50 years ago, the science wasn’t nearly as advanced, but there was just really no thought given to the potential negative effects.”

RW: “I guess – sorry to interrupt- but is that just because there was no environmental mindset back during that time?”
JA: “Yeah that is my take on it. There really wasn’t much environmental consciousness. Things didn’t really get going in a big way in this country until the 1960s when Silent Spring was published. In the 50s, it was, you know, ‘We can put a man on the moon, We can build a superhighway, We can do anything.’ I just didn’t find any evidence of any environmental concerns or thought put into potential side effects.”

RW: “Another thing I learned from your book- I grew up in the Great Lakes region and I remember as a kid hearing a lot about the zebra mussel, but I didn’t know that there is something even worse than the zebra mussel, the quagga mussel (pictured below).”

JA: “Yeah, scientists are pretty much in agreement now that the quagga mussel is the single worst invasive species in the Great Lakes. I refer to it as a zebra mussel on steroids. Because they are a little bigger than zebra mussels, they can live in a wider variety of environments, they can cling to anything where zebra mussels require a hard surface, and they are just more efficient feeders. And so they are finding these things at depths of 700 feet in Lake Michigan. They have all but driven zebra mussels out of Lake Michigan. And they are a really bad actor, because the sea lamprey sort of changed the top of the food web, but zebra and quagga mussels change every level of the ecosystem in the Great Lakes – from plankton up to loons and sturgeon. They affect every level. They change the water chemistry. You know, some scientists are saying we are seeing the most profound ecological changes in the Lakes in recorded history, because of these mussels.”

RW: “Do you think, then, that the St. Lawrence Seaway should be closed?”
JA: “It’s a simple question but I think when you look at the issue, it’s not such as simple question. The reason is everyone agrees the only way to prevent ocean freighters from bringing in species is to close the Seaway. That is the only fail-safe solution. But the reality is that the Seaway was built by the U.S. and Canada. They own it, they operate it, they hold all the cards. It would be politically impossible to close the Seaway, barring some Exxon Valdez- type environmental catastrophe. On a personal level, I think we could close the Seaway without having much negative effect on the economy, and studies have shown that. There could actually be an increase in jobs. The amount of international trade moving on the Seaway these days is minuscule, compared to what the lake freighters carry. Economically, it is not a big player for the region and it would be very easy to stop ships in Montreal, make them offload their cargo onto trucks and trains and be done with it. But realistically, it’s not going to happen. I feel like that answer is sort of waffling, but it’s just not a very simple question when you look at everything involved.”

RW: “Going back to the Asian carp, what do you think will happen? With the suggestion to close the Chicago area locks and shipping channels, do you see that as similarly politically impossible?”
JA: “It is politically impossible. When they started talking about it last year, the politicians and the barge industry in Chicago rose up and said, ‘Over our dead bodies.’ The thing that I think is really interesting about the Asian Carp story is that it’s like a bad case of déjà vu. You know, scientists were seeing zebra mussels in ocean freighters seven years before they were common in the Great Lakes, and nobody did anything. Asian Carp are knocking on our door, and there are a lot of things being done, but it’s not slowing their progression. I mean, they are still moving up the Chicago Shipping Canal. And they are now in the Wabash River in Indiana in huge numbers. And there’s a threat that if the Wabash floods, it often goes over into the Maumee River, which goes into Lake Erie. So, the Chicago Canal is the most immediate threat, but it is not the only passage for these things to get into the Lake. There certainly isn’t the sense of urgency that I think we need to have. And the other thing that sort of disturbs me is that people seem to be really provincial around the Lakes. And Chicago is showing this in a really bad way right now with the Asian Carp. They are trying to defend their industry, which is understandable, but we’re talking about an area that is probably has 5% or less of the Great Lakes shoreline potentially impacting the entire Great Lakes. And I think one of the real problems with addressing really big-picture Great Lakes issues is that people often don’t think of the Great Lakes as one large, connected system.”

RW: “That is definitely true. And that’s actually something we try to point out a lot on our web site; just to kind of think of the whole area as a region with similar strengths and similar problems.”
JA: “It’s hard because the system is so incredibly huge. I was in Buffalo a couple of months ago for a conference. And sitting here in Michigan, I think Buffalo is hundreds of miles away and you don’t think about how it’s connected to Michigan, but it is. The one thing I really wanted to figure out with my book was, could any of this have been prevented? Or was it just the world’s worst example of unintended consequences? I think it’s pretty clear that some of these species could have been kept out of the Lakes had the U.S. and Canadian governments done their jobs. We’re starting to see this pattern of: someone finds a species bearing down on the Great Lakes, scientists sound the alarm, advocacy groups get involved, and nothing happens. We had it with zebra mussels. We’re seeing it with Asian Carp, even though they are trying to do some things, you know, the clock is ticking….These invaders have incredibly profound effects on the ecosystem. I mean, look at the Asian Carp. I don’t think it’s going to turn the Great Lakes into giant carp ponds, I just don’t think the Lakes have the amount of plankton to support large numbers, but I think in parts of the Lakes, especially Lake Erie, I think they could do pretty well, and they could do really well in quite a few rivers around the Lakes….I guess maybe I’m just pessimistic, but I don’t see how we can keep them out of the Great Lakes. It’s going to be really difficult.”

RW: “You authored a report earlier this year about sewage overflow problems with the Lakes. Tell us why that’s such as serious problem and what can be done about it.”
JA: “The thought of billions of gallons of untreated sewage being dumped into the largest source of freshwater on the planet is appalling at the most fundamental level. We need these Lakes for drinking water and we are dumping untreated sewage into them. I don’t think environmental insults get much more basic than that. I think it shows that our cities have grown, they’ve gotten older, the infrastructure has aged and we just haven’t made the investment needed to keep up. Yeah, I think it’s a very serious problem, it’s not just human sewage, there is all this industrial waste. And I had no idea that the volume was in the tens of billions of gallons every year. We figured it was about 40 billion gallons in 2009. And a lot of that is almost entirely storm-dependent, so if you have a dry year, you don’t have (these events). To me, the thought of all the sewage overflow into the Great Lakes is really disgusting.”

RW: “Is there anything else I haven’t asked about you want people to know?”
JA: “Two things: When you read about all these invasive species, or write about them, it’s easy to think the Great Lakes are hopelessly damaged or are dying a slow death. But that’s the one area where I’m actually optimistic. If we can sort of turn off the spigot of new species coming into the Lakes, the Lakes will heal themselves to some extent. They’ve show themselves to be incredibly resilient in the past. Lake Erie in the 1960s went from a giant cesspool to one of the world’s best walleye fisheries. So the Lakes can heal themselves if we would just take better care of them. I’m not Pollyanna about it. The Lakes have serious problems. But I think there is a tendency for people to give up and think all is lost. And I think we should never give up on the Great Lakes. The other thing I tell people, is that if they are concerned about invasive species of Asian Carp or the Seaway, with technology being what it is today, it is really easy to get on the Internet, find your elected official and send them an e-mail. You don’t have to know all the technical aspects. All you have to say is, ‘I want you to do everything in your power to make sure Asian Carp don’t get into the Great Lakes.’ Our elected officials in Washington need to hear that. They need to know people are concerned about the Great Lakes. There is really no excuse for apathy anymore.”


Filed under Book review, Economic Development, Editorial, Great Lakes, Headline, Politics, regionalism, the environment

Report: Investment Needed to Solve Great Lakes’ Sewage Crisis

Billions of dollars of infrastructure investment are needed to stop untreated sewage from Great Lakes cities that flows into the Lakes, according to a study released earlier this month.

From January 2009 through January of this year, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee and Gary, Indiana, discharged 41 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water into the Lakes, according to data analyzed by the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

“The Great Lakes are under siege from sewage overflows,” Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said in a statement. “This report underscores that we have solutions to keep our beaches open, our people healthy and our economy growing. Inaction, however, will exacerbate a problem that is already very serious.”

These sewage overflows are one of the most serious problems facing the Lakes, the report states. Among the problems this pollution can cause- beach closures, harm to wildlife and damage to the tourism industry.

It recommends a two-pronged approach:
– cities must separate miles of combined sewer pipes into sanitary and storm sewers and
– installing “green” infrastructure — such as rain gardens, vegetated roofs and pervious pavement — to capture and cleans this storm water and reduce the volume of storm water flowing off the landscape.

The bad news? “Communities in the Great Lakes basin (are) facing a $23.3 billion tab. Reducing the incidence of (combined sewer overflows) to a level the EPA considers acceptable would collectively cost the cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee and Gary, Ind., about $3.7 billion.”

The good news? This investment would be good for public health and the economy, with thousands of jobs created, according to the group.

Read the detailed, 40-page report for more information about sewer overflows and to see what different cities are doing to fix this problem.


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Filed under Economic Development, Editorial, Green Jobs, regionalism, the environment