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Senate Passes Bill That Would Protect Great Lakes

The extra light that reaches the bottom as a result means the lake floor is blanketed with thick mats of cladophora algae that wash up on beaches in stinking globs.

For the past month, mounds of mystery trash have been deposited on Michigan beaches, possibly floating over from Wisconsin.

As if all this were not enough, a warming climate is expected to have complex and potentially harmful effects, including lowering water levels as the winter ice cover decreases, and increased evaporation.

With so many issues involving multiple stakeholders -- eight states; two Canadian provinces; shipping, fishing and tourism industries; environmentalists and outdoors people; Native American and Canadian First Nations tribes -- nothing about restoring the Great Lakes is likely to be quick or easy.

Take the electric barrier constructed in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to prevent voracious invasive Asian carp from getting into Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River. Although the $9.3 million project is complete, the full barrier has not been activated because of concerns about foot-long electric sparks observed in earlier tests.

And then there is the fight over ballast water.

Most of the harmful invasive species in the Great Lakes probably were transported in the ballast of oceangoing vessels that enter through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

On July 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld a lower court decision requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate ballast water discharges under the Clean Water Act. The ruling was a victory for advocates, but many groups are not satisfied with the EPA's plans to rely on ballast water exchange at sea and "swish and spit" saltwater flushes for ships with no ballast.

"The EPA requires no new action by oceangoing vessels. From a scientific standpoint, there's plenty of literature showing ballast exchange is really ineffective," said Andy Buchsbaum, executive director of the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation. "We've been doing it in the Great Lakes for almost 20 years, and we still get a new invasive about every 28 weeks."

Total restoration and cleanup costs for the Great Lakes are estimated at $15 billion to $20 billion -- a daunting figure, but advocates said the compact's progress shows that it is becoming a national priority.

"It's looking like an unstoppable tidal wave right now," Davis said. "The fact that leaders from around the nation have said yes to this is a signal that they see the Great Lakes as not just a local swimming hole but a national icon."

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