Our Great Lakes deserve a group effort to protect them
Taken separately, the threats to the health of the Great Lakes are enough to raise alarm.
Together they are a crisis, the root of which we must recognize and take seriously.
Mercury, PCBs, PFAS, fertilizer, pesticides, microplastics, water withdrawal, toxic algae, botulism, invasive species, sewage leaks — they all damage the Great Lakes every day.
And they all sprout from the same root cause: us.
Every major threat to the health of the Great Lakes finds its origin in our activities. Our carelessness.
Individually, each of those problems is a serious challenge, and many are being addressed in a somewhat disconnected array of efforts. And it seems with each passing month, there is a new catastrophe brewing.
The latest: PFAS found in fish in the Upper Peninsula. But that one unsettling discovery can’t be taken as an isolated occurrence. Nor can we afford to continue to treat each injury we cause to the Great Lakes as a single wound.
Our lakes, with our help, may be able to sustain a swipe or two from human negligence. But together the problems we have created present a crisis that will take all our effort to address.
Further, they are issues that affect the lifeblood of our region must be treated together if we hope to preserve the overall health of the lakes we love.
We’re not saying the efforts so far haven’t been effective, either. Take Lake Erie for example — an extraordinary success story after decades of efforts to cleanse the lake of egregious pollution problems caused by negligent industrial activities. It was a commendable accomplishment, but didn’t ensure the lake’s future health.
Even in the midst of that success, that lake, and the people who depend upon it for fresh, clean water, face a growing disaster caused by toxic algae blooms.
Each of our lakes faces a problem or two of similar magnitude and intensity. They also each have garnered a massive program or two to combat those issues. Yet, those programs, and our perception of the problems they address, seem to sidestep the interconnectedness of the lakes and the issues we cause.
That’s where we think our collective perception of our lakes and our interactions with them needs to change.
A pile of plastic trash left on a beach in Empire will create microplastics that resurface in Lake Huron. Carp that sneak into Lake Michigan in Chicago will reach Lake Superior in no time. Leaking sewer lines and deteriorating septic systems will trigger algae blooms everywhere. And invasive species plunked into Lake Ontario will spread like wildfire.
The worst part: many of the problems we’re talking about are ongoing issues, not damage caused decades ago from which we are working to recover.
Plastic pollution is added to shorelines every day. Chemicals leech into the water from products we use. Deteriorating infrastructure leaks into the lakes constantly.
That’s why meaningful protections really aren’t possible until we all begin to embrace the fact that an injury to one of our lakes affects them all. And all injuries we inflict build upon one another toward critical damage.
That’s why we hope everyone, policymakers included, begin to recognize we can’t treat the wounds we cause to the Great Lakes individually, nor should one fix wait for another’s completion.
Together we created these threats to our lakes, and only together can we fix them.
Record-Eagle (Traverse City)