Tag Archives: Great Lakes

What’s the Matter With Wisconsin?

And we’re not talking about the state’s recent labor showdown.

What hasn’t gotten as much attention, is the new governor’s “assault on environmental regulations,” writes Gary Wilson in a commentary on Great Lakes Echo. Wilson cites several examples, among them: a proposal to weaken regulation around phosphorous. (More on why you should care about that and how it impacts the Great Lakes here.)

Wilson sees this as especially unfortunate, as the state was long considered a leader on environmental issues.

He tells Echo readers:

“National labor leaders rallied behind Wisconsin workers as their bargaining rights were under attack. Great Lakes environmental leaders should do no less to protect Wisconsin’s environment. Because what happens in Wisconsin impacts all of us, this isn’t the time to be on the sidelines.”

Great Lakes Echo is a project of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Check them out for other Great Lakes stories.



Filed under Great Lakes, Politics, the environment

From Suburban Milwaukee, a History-Making Battle over Water and Sprawl

Waukesha, Wisconsin is a city whose identity has always been tied to water. In the late 1800s, the town was known for its natural springs. So fresh-tasting was the water that people traveled from around the country to share in its purported medicinal properties. Among those who sought its healing powers was first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

But there are no springs in Waukesha anymore. Over the years, as Waukesha evolved into a sprawling and affluent suburb of Milwaukee, its springs went dry or were paved over. More recently, the deep sandstone aquifer that is the town’s main source of water has been drained substantially and has become contaminated with radium.

All of which has led to the watershed moment in which Waukesha finds itself today. The suburb is seeking permission to be the first community since the Great Lakes Pact of 2008 to pipe water in from the lakes, the country’s largest source of fresh surface water.

The proposal has sparked debates about sprawl and water policy in a region where land development has far outpaced population growth. And observers are watching this case closely because it will set a precedent which could have a profound effect on urban form and rural land throughout the Great Lakes region.

Pabst Farms, a greenfield development 12 miles west of Waukesha, typifies the sprawling development that has exhausted water resources nearby.

The Great Lakes Pact was designed to protect this important freshwater source from ever being depleted by water-starved communities in the U.S. South and Southwest. Ironically, however, unsustainable development patterns in relatively water-rich places near the Great Lakes have exhausted local freshwater sources. As a result, conflicts over Great Lakes water will be fought much closer to home. Waukesha is the first battleground.

The pact allows only communities inside the Great Lakes basin to pipe water from the lakes. Waukesha itself lies entirely outside the basin, but is eligible to apply for special diversion permission because it is part of a county that lies partly inside. Under the pact, all eight governors of the Great Lakes states will have to give their approval before Waukesha is granted an exception to pipe water 15 miles west from Lake Michigan.

First, however, the plan will need to be approved by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It has already received the approval of Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

These decisions could open up vast new stretches of the Great Lakes region to the type of land-devouring development that already characterizes Waukesha. And it could signal more bad news for nearby rural areas, the city of Milwaukee, and other Great Lakes regions that can scarcely afford any more outward sprawl.

Proponents of Waukesha’s diversion plan point out that it has some environmental benefits. All water consumed by the community will be treated and then pumped back into Lake Michigan, so as not to lower water levels. The proposal would also allow the aquifer to begin its long recovery and would put an end to homeowners’ use of water softeners, which add chloride to the water, said Mike Hahn said, chief environmental engineer with SEWRPC.

But watchdogs say the plan will fuel sprawl and weaken the region’s urbanized areas. The most controversial portion would create a new water service territory extending beyond the boundaries of Waukesha into surrounding municipalities.

“That’s where many of us in the environmental community look at that and think, ‘That is just to allow sprawl in the western suburbs,’” said Emily Green, senior field managing organizer with the Wisconsin Sierra Club. “That’s not what the Great Lakes Pact was intended to cover.”

Local environmentalists are working to ensure that communities from outside the basin seeking Great Lakes water are held to a very high standard.

Hahn of the Planning Commission says much of the new service area is already developed and all environmentally significant areas are precluded from development. SEWPRC has officially stated that the new service area would allow for only 1,500 new homes.

James Rowen, author of the local blog The Political Environment and a former Milwaukee mayoral staffer, thinks that estimate is low. Rowen says that, given the diversion, Waukesha is likely to use its abundance of clean freshwater to lure new businesses and residents. And the likely loser in the whole scenario is Milwaukee, which for decades has been declining relative to its western suburban neighborhoods.

“The compact is a water management and conservation document first and foremost,” Rowen said, and should not be used to give “one municipality an economic advantage over another, or one state over another.”

As Milwaukee has lost manufacturing jobs, suburban Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties have beckoned to businesses and residents from the city. As the region sprawled in the nineties, its population grew only two percent, but 18 percent of its farmland was lost to development.

David Rusk of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago examined the insidious pattern of low-growth sprawl in his report “Sprawl, Race and Concentrated Poverty in Southeast Wisconsin” [PDF] in 2001. He found that between 1950 and 1990, the footprint of the Milwaukee-Waukesha metropolitan area grew at eight times the rate of its population.

New greenfield developments have had a particularly strong pull for the region’s middle- and upper-classes. The “secession” of affluent residents from the city of Milwaukee was the subject of a 1999 report by Marc Levine at the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The report noted that exurban regions of the metro area saw a 60 percent increase in their share of people with incomes greater than $100,000 between 1987 and 1997. Meanwhile, the city of Milwaukee’s population of high earners fell by 19 percent. At the time, Waukesha County contained 44 percent of the region’s affluent residents.

In turn, low-growth sprawl has widened the chasm between rich and poor, Levine wrote. The Brookings Institution recently named it the most segregated area in the country.

“Metropolitan Milwaukee has already become a highly polarized region, with growing exurban pockets of affluence more and more disconnected from an increasingly impoverished central city,” Levine wrote. “The exodus damages the city’s tax base and weakens its consumer markets, and hinders urban revitalization efforts.”

Further growth in Waukesha is likely to come at the expense of the rest of the region, said Rowen.

“Even if the city of Milwaukee were to sell Lake Michigan water to the city of Waukesha, the economic benefit would be a pittance, compared to the economic benefit transferred in terms of jobs and development,” he said.

That’s why local activists have been adamant that Waukesha control its growth and its impact on the environment and find another way to secure safe drinking water. The suburb has been making do by pulling water from a combination of deep and shallow wells and using a special filtration process. Activists say they should continue to explore alternatives like these, rather than import lake water.

It’s not just urban contingents that have raised concerns about Waukesha’s potential growth. Residents of the nearby town of Waukesha — a rural community that borders the city of Waukesha — aren’t happy about the expanded water service area either. Angie Van Scyoc, chairman of the town of Waukesha, said the plan, as it is currently written, threatens the rural character of her community, raising the threat of annexation.

“Many communities feel like the towns around them are there for their consumption,” she said. “We don’t want to be consumed by them. We want to be independent.”

This post was originally written for Streetsblog Capitol Hill.


Filed under Great Lakes, Headline, sprawl

What’s the next Asian Carp?

For some less-than-reassuring reading, take a look at this piece in the Grand Rapids Press, which highlights some potential invasive species threats to the Great Lakes.

We’ve all heard about the threat posed by Asian carp, but there are other species that could hurt the Lakes, this article explains.

Among the 75 contenders: the northern snakehead (pictured above and subject of the movies ‘Snakehead Terror’ and ‘Frankenfish,’ according to Wikipedia), monkey goby, New Zealand mudsnail, killer shrimp, golden mussel and hydrilla, according to the Press.


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Filed under Featured, Great Lakes, regionalism, the environment

Good Thing: Keeping Raw Sewage out of Lake Erie

Last week, the US EPA and Department of Justice announced a $3 billion settlement with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) to help keep untreated raw sewage from flowing into Lake Erie.

A bit of background: the agency is considered in violation of the 1972 Clean Water Act because of the sewage overflows that sometimes happen during rainstorms. (You can read more about the mechanics and science of how and why this happens here.) Cleveland isn’t alone in this problem; a number of Great Lakes cities discharge billions of gallons in sewage every year.

You can read the announcement here and more history and information about the EPA’s case against NEORSD here. You can also read about “Project Clean Lake” from NEORSD here.

The EPA estimates NEORSD discharges almost five billion gallons of untreated, raw sewage

approximately 3,000 to 4,000 times per year into Lake Erie and nearby rivers. The settlement will require the sewer district to spend approximately $3 billion to install pollution controls, including the construction of seven tunnel systems ranging from two to five miles in length that will reduce the discharges of untreated, raw sewage to approximately 537 million gallons per year.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports in this interesting and helpful Q&A this will  unfortunately  likely mean higher sewer bills for Cleveland and surrounding communities, tripling bills over 25 years in order for the District to be in compliance with the Clean Water Act. However, the project is expected to generate jobs.

As we’ve reported before, sewage overflows are a serious problem for the Lakes. A study in August recommended Great Lakes cities 1) separate miles of combined sewer pipes into sanitary and storm sewers and 2) install “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.



Filed under Editorial, Good Ideas, Great Lakes, Green Jobs, regionalism

Is Your City ‘Water Sustainable?’

From The Nature Conservancy via the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

“Americans are collectively moving from the places that are best equipped to deal with climate change to those that are least equipped,” (a Nature conservancy blogger) writes.

The five cities at the bottom in water sustainability (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Mesa,  Tucson, and Los Angeles) grew by an average of 37 percent from 1990-2000.

But among the five most water-sustainable cities, only Chicago grew. The other four cloudy and water-rich towns Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit and New Orleans — all lost population.”

The article also has information about climate change impacting the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie.


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Filed under Economic Development, Great Lakes, the environment

Political round-up: Why did the Rust Belt go red? And what does the election mean for the Great Lakes?

There’s been a lot written about last week’s midterm elections and I’m hesitant to add to it.

But I know I’m not the only person who noticed several of the states that swung from blue to red were in our region: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Why is this? High unemployment? Higher turnout of white working class voters dissatisfied with Obama?

What do you think? We’ve got a lot of collective brainpower amongst our readers, I am curious to hear people’s thoughts. Also, what policies enacted by Obama and the Democratic Congress have benefited this region? The auto bailout? Extended unemployment benefits? Funds for the Great Lakes? Also, what does this mean for 2012?

On a related note, this article points out the election marks a major departure of members of Congress who have helped secure funds and protection for the Great Lakes.

“Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., the first member of Congress to introduce legislation banning oil and gas drilling under the Great Lakes, is retiring. So is Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., a leader in Great Lakes protection. Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, a Great Lakes advocate on the other side of the Capitol, is retiring, too,” the story notes.


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Filed under Great Lakes, Politics, regionalism, the environment, The Media, U.S. Auto Industry

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