Statement of Senator Carl Levin, Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife Joint Hearing “Legislative Approaches to Protecting, Preserving and Restoring Great Water Bodies”

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Great Lakes are vital not only to Michigan but to the nation. Roughly one tenth of the U.S. population lives in the Great Lakes basin and depends daily on the lakes. The Great Lakes provide drinking water to 40 million people in the U.S. and Canada. They provide the largest recreational resource for their 8 neighboring states and for million more from other states and other countries. They form the largest body of freshwater in the world, containing roughly 18 percent of the world's total; only the polar ice caps contain more freshwater. They are critical for our economy by helping move natural resources to the factory and to move products to market.

While the environmental protections that were put in place in the early 1970s have helped the Great Lakes make strides toward recovery, a 2003 GAO report made clear that there is much work still to do. That report stated: "Despite early success in improving conditions in the Great Lakes Basin, significant environmental challenges remain, including increased threats from invasive species and cleanup of areas contaminated with toxic substances that pose human health threats." More recently, many scientists reported that the Great Lakes are exhibiting signs of stress due to a combination of sources, including toxic contaminants, invasive species, nutrient loading, shoreline and upland land use changes, and hydrologic modifications. A 2005 report from a group of Great Lakes scientific experts states that "historical sources of stress have combined with new ones to reach a tipping point, the point at which ecosystem-level changes occur rapidly and unexpectedly, confounding the traditional relationships between sources of stress and the expected ecosystem response."

Asian carp represents a massive threat and a number of important actions are required to deal with it. The zebra mussel, an aquatic invasive species, caused $3 billion in economic damage to the Great Lakes from 1993 to 2003. In 2000, seven people died after pathogens entered the Walkerton, Ontario drinking water supply from the lakes. In May of 2004, more than ten billion gallons of raw sewage and storm water were dumped into the Great Lakes. In that same year, more than 1,850 beach closures in the Great Lakes. Each summer, Lake Erie develops a 6,300 square mile dead zone. There is no appreciable natural reproduction of lake trout in the lower four lakes. More than half of the Great Lakes region's original wetlands have been lost, along with 60% of the forests. Wildlife habitat has been destroyed, diminishing opportunities necessary for fishing, hunting and other forms of outdoor recreation.

These problems have been well known for several years, and, in 2005, 1,500 people through the Great Lakes region worked together to compile recommendations for restoring the lakes. These recommendations were released in December 2005, and the Presidents Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been a path to addressing these many threats. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is a five year commitment of the President. It represents great hope for the Lakes.

Building on past success, there are a number of programs that need to be authorized and reauthorized in federal law. For instance, the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, established by Executive Order in 2004, requires that the many federal agencies operating in the Great Lakes coordinate with each other. Restoring the Great Lakes involves many stakeholders including the federal government, states, cities, tribes and others, and Congress needs to be sure that the federal agency efforts are in order.

The Great Lakes Legacy program has been extremely successful and has cleaned up about 900,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments at Areas of Concern throughout the Great Lakes. This is a partnership program which requires a non-federal cost-share to address the legacy of contaminated sediment in our region. The Legacy program expires at the end of 2010.

Finally, the Great Lakes region needs a process for advising the EPA and other federal agencies on Great Lakes matters. While there have been various advisory groups that have been pulled together over the years, there has never been a standing advisory entity, and that has been a gap in the governance and management of the Great Lakes.

Mr. Chairman, the Great Lakes are a unique American treasure. We must recognize that we are only their temporary stewards. We must be good stewards by doing all we can to ensure that the federal government meets its ongoing obligation to protect and restore the Great Lakes.