From the algae blooms in Lake Erie to the invading zebra mussels in Lake Michigan, threats to the Great Lakes ecology stretch from A to Z. That would include B for bacteria, M for mercury and T for toxic spills.
Chicago beaches close routinely because of E. coli contamination. Advisories are in place about eating fish contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Environmental advocates warn about sewage overflows, water diversion and the increasing demands of a thirsty population.
After many years of haphazard government stewardship, a broad study effort convened by the Bush administration discovered much agreement on the troubles of the vast water system. The problem is the cost. A draft report released in July suggested spending $20 billion in the coming years -- several times more than current expenditures, and more than influential members of the Bush administration consider affordable.
Although formal conclusions are not due until December, skeptical Republicans and Democrats are already asking how committed the White House and its congressional allies will prove to be -- not least because of the huge demands of the Iraq war and the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.
"We want to see action," said Rep. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.), who reported that 140,000 women in Illinois alone showed elevated levels of mercury. To end the administration study effort with merely a series of poorly funded recommendations, he said, would "make it a waste of time."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who joined Kirk in developing a $4 billion Great Lakes cleanup bill now stalled in Congress, said the administration has spent $4.5 billion on water projects in Iraq.
"This is not a mystery anymore. We know what needs to be done," Emanuel said. "The Great Lakes has gotten nine studies in four years from this administration, and Iraq has gotten $4.5 billion. Give Iraq the studies, and we'll take the money."
The worries of Kirk and Emanuel are confirmed by a private draft memorandum assembled by a committee of federal officials who will report to President Bush after the December report is released. The group said it has "serious concerns" with the July 2005 proposals and called for a strategy that "focuses on what can be accomplished within current budget projections."
In a recent draft of the memorandum by the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, a pledge to "redouble" U.S. efforts was replaced with "refocus" and "prioritize." Removed entirely is the sentence, "If any of the strategic plan's goals cannot be accomplished within current resources, the federal government should work with its partners to ensure the appropriate sharing of responsibilities."
Administration officials are already cautioning people not to expect too much. The December report, assembled with contributions from 1,500 people from all levels of government, advocacy groups and business interests, will be considered recommendations, not definitive policy. Money will be limited.
"We really have to come up with what's realistic and pragmatic. The overall budget picture is something that's part of this," said Gary Gulezian, who directs the Great Lakes efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The effort to attract more dollars and interest to the Great Lakes is a case study in how regional authorities with big-ticket ambitions must compete for national attention. Without federal money and commitment, there are severe constraints on what will be accomplished.
That is why Kirk mentions in an interview that the Great Lakes region, stretching from New York to Minnesota, touches 128 electoral votes. And why a Capitol Hill staffer notes that all eight governors of states bordering the lakes and the mayors of every Great Lakes city with more than 50,000 residents supported the restoration project outlined by the two Congress members and backed by more than 100 colleagues.
"Right now, we've got the states, the mayors, the public on board. Now we need to see the federal agencies stand firm," said Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. An allocation of $1 billion a year for 20 years would make him happy.
Advocates in the Midwest often cite the Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades as restoration projects that caught Washington's eye and pried open the federal checkbook. They ask, why not the Great Lakes, home to 21 percent of the fresh water on Earth's surface -- and at least 31 toxic sites that require cleanup.
Twenty-eight million Americans depend on the lakes for water, as do thousands of farms and businesses. The water is used for drinking, and waste is pumped back into the deep. A single coal-fired Wisconsin power plant will suck in 2.2 billion gallons of water a day, returning it to Lake Michigan several degrees warmer. Near Chicago, 2.1 billion gallons of the lake's water flows each day into a canal that reversed the Chicago River.
Development next to the lakes has "seriously degraded" water quality, the General Accountability Office wrote in a 2003 report that criticized the Bush administration for doing too little. The GAO described an administration report called Great Lakes Strategy 2002 as little more than a catalog of existing efforts that provided no overarching design or funding commitment.
"The ecosystem," the authors wrote, "remains compromised."
Despite 148 federal and 51 state environmental programs in the region, the agency found that years of studies and committees "have not resulted in significant restoration."
In May 2004, Bush announced the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, the study project now nearing completion. The EPA's Gulezian said one goal is "to identify the things that need to be done first and in what sequence."
"It took a long time for the Great Lakes to get to the state they're in now, and it's going to take a while to get restoration," Gulezian said.
Then-EPA administrator Michael O. Leavitt said in announcing the effort -- to cautious reviews from environmentalists -- that it meant "not a redoing but a redoubling." Among the fields under review are many kinds of pollution, from runoff and industrial waste to sewage and airborne chemicals that settle in the water supply.
Besieged wetlands and animal habitats are being studied, along with invasive species such as the zebra mussel, round goby and sea lamprey that have changed the lakes' ecology.
Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-Ill.), representing a district on the Illinois lake shore, spoke of beach closings and mercury levels. She wonders how much money a White House not known for environmental sympathies will be prepared to seek from Congress, especially given the budget strains of the war in Iraq and the September hurricanes on the Gulf Coast.
"They've dug themselves into such a deep hole that getting issues like this to the top of the pile is very hard," Schakowsky said. "There's a lot of show and a lot of paper. Now we've got to get resources in place."