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WisBiz In-Depth: Katrina, Other Priorities Hamper Cleanup of Major Waterways
9/16/2005

By Gregg Hoffmann

Wisconsin is defined to a large degree on the map by two coasts – along the Mississippi River on the west and Lake Michigan on the east.

Together, these waterways represent two of the great natural resources in the country, make that the world. Both attract tourists, nature lovers, development and commerce alike.

Both have been ravaged by time, and abused by those who don’t understand, or care about, their ecology and health.

In more recent times, efforts have started to clean up both waterways. Yet, those efforts face big obstacles, put in their way in part by politicians who don’t consider the cleanups a priority, businesses that find it too costly to change their ways of doing business and some citizens who want to maintain their rights to use the resources.

An EPA task force of conservationists, industry leaders and federal, state, tribal and local officials recently looked at the biggest problems facing the Great Lakes, and estimated that up to $20 billion would be needed over the next 15 years to clean up the lakes.

Public comment on that cleanup blueprint ended in early September. The plan is expected to be finalized in December.

It won’t have an easy road. With cleanup costs from Katrina numbering in the millions, and restoration projects already underway in the Florida Everglades and Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, including Lake Michigan, aren’t a priority for many politicians.

Michigan Congressman Vernon Ehlers told a group of conservationists in early September “it is a daunting challenge to get lawmakers from outside the region to appreciate the magnificence of the world's largest freshwater system, let alone care about the sewage spills, toxic sediments and invasive species that plague it,” according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story.

Ehlers cited a statement by one West Coast lawmaker during a debate over the funding. "I am adamantly opposed to this," Ehlers quoted the lawmaker. "I see no reason in the world why we should spend taxpayer money studying the muscles of zebras!"

Such ignorance of the problem concerns Ehlers and others, and is coupled with a loss of political clout in the Midwest. "We are losing political clout in the Great Lakes area," Ehlers said. "If you look at what percentage of Congress has been represented by Great Lakes states for the 40 years, it has been a steady downhill slide as people move to the South, Southeast, Southwest and California. We really have to act fast, before the next (congressional) redistricting, before we lose the strength we now have."

In May 2004, President Bush ordered the EPA to establish the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force to develop a streamlined cleanup program for the lakes. Bush’s order came after Congress released a report showing that $1.7 billion had been spent on dozens of state and federal restoration programs between 1992 and 2001, but there was little coordination among those efforts.

Cleanup efforts, in fact, often have been marred by wrangling among the various interests. For example, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has long been under attack from various agencies and groups for periodic releases of sewage into the lake.

The EPA and DNR have issued orders. Environmentalists have ranted. Chicago interests once threatened to sue MMSD, but district officials maintain the number of releases has been dramatically reduced and water quality has shown improvement.

Businesses, for the most part, have done a good job of “shutting off the spigots” that once released raw sewage into Lake Michigan, but continued development in southeastern Wisconsin and elsewhere along the coast of the lake have allowed runoff and non-point pollution to continue.

Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Office, recently said that the lakes have to be given a higher priority by all interests. "The Great Lakes are more than a lot of water," said Buchsbaum. "They define our geography, our climate, our economy, and the way we live."

Mississippi River Cleanup

On the west coast of the state, a similar statement could be made about the Mississippi River. But, once again, there are obstacles to its cleanup.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a 15-year Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Upper Mississippi River Refuge earlier this year, opponents turned out in droves at hearings. They included hunters and fishers, boaters and many others who use the river for recreation.

The FWS, working with the Departments of Natural Resources from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, the Corps of Engineers, and the public, is charged by Congress with coming up with a 15-year CCP for the Refuge.

Opposition to the FWS preferred plan was strong enough that the agency, after holding workshops with the interested groups, announced it will come up with a new proposal. That plan should be out before the end of this year.

“I believe the Fish and Wildlife people are trying to balance protection of this beautiful resource we have here with public access to it,” said Congressman Ron Kind during the hearings. “It’s a big task. The fact people have turned out for these hearings shows how much they care about the river and the Refuge.”

Much of the media emphasis and public concern over the CCP has been on some of the more controversial proposals – possible restrictions on access in certain areas of the Refuge, especially during migratory and breeding seasons, some fees for certain uses, additional land acquisition and others.

Priorities in the original FWS preferred plan included:

  • Maintain the integrity of the Refuge boundary by working with the Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over navigation and the locks and dams.
  • Acquire more land by 2020, which would include only land that was identified in the 1987 Master Plan and subsequent approvals.
  • Protect the bluffs along the Refuge through protective easements and other means.
  • Improve water quality and level.
  • Eradicate invasive species, including purple loosestrife, which has grown rampant, zebra mussels and Asian carp.
  • Management plans for each of the 14 pools in the Refuge. Wildlife habitat is essential in these pools.
  • Manage hunting, fishing and trapping in the Refuge.

Of course, the Mississippi River also is a major navigation route for freight. Water levels have to be maintained for that business endeavor. The system of locks and dams has done that, but also flooded habitat, wetlands and even islands within the Refuge.

“There is a tendency for adjacent development and use to creep over Refuge lands and waters,” read the public review draft of the CCP. “This encroachment includes tree cutting, dumping, construction, storing of equipment and materials, and mowing of Refuge lands. In addition, there are a few boundaries between Refuge and Corps-managed lands that remain unclear, leading to mixed messages to the public using these lands via permits, leases or out grants.”

The FWS is proposing that a new survey be done of the Refuge and that it and the Army Corps of Engineers enter into a new agreement.

Kind said he is very interested in making sure federal funding is available for any plan. “There is a tendency for bricks and mortar to get priority, but the environmental aspects of this are very important. I want to make sure funding for it is a chief component” he said.

Navigation a Concern

A navigation plan, which has been rumored to include additional locks and dams, also has created controversy, but to date no proposal has been formalized and passed. The current locks and dams system costs $110 million a year to maintain.

“Nothing is happening with the NAV plan, yet it would have a significant impact on this comprehensive plan,” Kind said during the CCP hearings. “The focus in the past has been on expansion, but the existing lock and dam system is badly in need of maintenance and updating. Some of these structures go back to the 1930s.

"If we wait too long, that could get very expensive and have environmental impacts. We have been using a band aid approach in some areas. The Administration has not taken a position (on locks and dams or the navigation plan in general). We need to start considering this.”

Several business interests have lobbied for improvement to the locks and dams. In a 2004 report, Daryll E. Ray of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, wrote:

A recent Senate committee's approval of legislation that authorizes the upgrading of the Mississippi River lock and dam system brought this issue back into the public spotlight. The Mississippi River locks and dams are an essential part of the grain transportation infrastructure of the central U.S., inexpensively delivering grain from the nation's breadbasket to Gulf ports for export shipment.

The system consists of a series of 27 locks and dams on the Mississippi River above St. Louis, Missouri, ensuring a nine foot channel for barge traffic as far upstream as St. Paul, Minnesota. The bulk of the system was built in the 1930s. The question has been whether or not this system needs to be upgraded to repair aging structures as well as to meet the current needs of shippers.

Agricultural producers and their organizations have been directly involved in lobbying for the upgrade project. They contend that it is necessary to help U.S. farmers remain competitive with producers elsewhere in the world by providing an efficient, low-cost transportation system.

There are, no doubt, some very good reasons for upgrading the lock and dam system including repairs of the effects of aging and the opportunity to take advantage of advances that have been made in riverine transportation systems since the system was originally built. On the other hand, it is important not to overestimate the positive impact it might have on farmers and the price they receive for their seeds and grains.

A total of 92 percent of the nation’s agriculture exports travel up and down the river. Seventy-eight percent of the world’s feed and grain supply are grown in the region and shipped, in part, via the Mississippi.

Agribusiness is not the only industry that has concerns about navigating the Mississippi. Eight million tons of goods are shipped up and down the river per year. It would take 225 rail cars or a fleet of tractor trailers 34 miles long to ship the same amount of goods that fit into into a convoy of 15 river barges.. So, many industries want to continue to use the river.

During the Grand Excursion in June of last year, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle renewed their two states’ commitment to protecting the water quality of the Mississippi River.

The governors each directed a member of their cabinet to work with the other state on developing a plan for a more coordinated approach to protecting the country’s most important river. Spearheading the joint state effort are MPCA Commissioner Sheryl Corrigan and her counterpart, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Hassett. Some of the goals for this effort include:

  • Establishing a long-term goal of making the Mississippi River unimpaired, fishable, and swimmable again;

  • Working together, wherever possible, to protect water quality on the river, and restore those waters impaired;

  • Putting a higher statewide environmental priority on efforts to protect the Mississippi River, including strategic efforts at the watershed level to develop watershed plans and ways to track results; and

  • Focusing on meeting the two states’ shared responsibility of nutrient and sediment reduction, including making progress on the multi-state plan to reduce nitrogen discharges into the Gulf of Mexico by 30 percent by 2015.

Some progress toward these goals have been made, but tight budget concerns in both states, and all levels of government, and other priorities often have taken precedent. It would seem that is the problem facing any real cleanup efforts of both Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River – until those efforts are made a top priority the progress will move slowly.


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