U.S., Canada Weigh Great Lakes Cleanup

The Associated Press
Sunday, January 14, 2007; 3:41 AM

-- When Canada and the United States approved the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972, the running joke in Cleveland was that anyone unlucky enough to fall into the Cuyahoga River would decay rather than drown.

The Cuyahoga, which meanders through the city before reaching Lake Erie, helped inspire the cleanup initiative by literally catching fire three years earlier. The lower end of the 112-mile-long waterway was a foul brew of oil, sludge, sewage and chemicals. It made embarrassing headlines when its surface flamed for about 30 minutes.

Today the river is returning to health under a plan developed through the binational agreement. Pollution levels have fallen. Nearly 70 fish species have been detected in areas once considered virtually lifeless. Bald eagle nests have been spotted nearby.

"Maybe one day we'll actually be able to swim within the harbor," says Ed Hauser, an environmental activist who launches his kayaks from a park at the river mouth. "I'll get my feet wet, but I sure don't want to fall in there."

The U.S. and Canadian governments are considering whether to update and strengthen the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which hasn't been significantly revised since 1987. It commits the two countries to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity" of the world's biggest surface freshwater system _ a mission that many see as only partly accomplished.

Although the lakes and their major tributaries are less dirty than four decades ago, states continue warning children and women of childbearing age to limit fish consumption because of lingering toxicity. Algae overgrowth and a resulting oxygen-starved "dead zone" in Lake Erie, all but eliminated by the early 1980s, are returning.

And the waters face threats t t were recognized barely if at all when the agreement first was crafted, such as the exotic species invasion, climate change and shoreline development.

Despite increasingly urgent warnings from scientists and activists that the lakes are in peril, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its counterpart, Environment Canada, "have no preconceived notion that we will or will not revise the agreement," says Mark Elster, senior analyst with the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office.

A committee representing both countries is studying the matter. A decision isn't likely before next year, Elster says.

"Our only requirement right now is to review the agreement _ its operation and effectiveness," he says. "The outcome of this process will be a report to the two governments on what could be done."

Many supporters say the agreement has lost clout and could become irrelevant unless overhauled.

There's no shortage of programs aimed at cleaning up the Great Lakes; a 2003 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office identified 140 on the federal level alone. Yet the water quality agreement is unique because it obligates the two countries to work toward the same goals. Although not legally binding, it carries moral weight.

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