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Creatures from the Deep Are Invading!

Josh Mogerman

Posted August 14, 2008

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We are slowly being infiltrated. Creepy, crawly, slimy little creatures are invading. Aliens are taking over.

 This isn’t a sci-fi movie. It’s the Great Lakes and it is happening now. But just like in all the scary flicks, bringing the army, navy, coast guard or marines into the fray is not going to solve the problem…

The Great Lakes ecosystem, which holds one-fifth of the world’s fresh water supply, is continually threatened by invasive species---a new organism finds its way into the lakes every six months. Sea lampreys decimated fish stocks. And now the giant Asian carp, threatens to devour all remaining fish species if it can find a way out of the Sanitary Ship Canal. The zebra mussel played havoc with our water intake systems in the 80’s. The quagga mussel is now one of the most plentiful animal species in the lakes and is fundamentally changing the ecosystem.

Fundamentally changing the ecosystem? It sounds overblown, I know… But this is not alarmist hyperbole. The Chicago Tribune’s article last week “Underwater, A Disturbing New World” was…well, yeah, disturbing.

Lake Michigan’s formerly dark and rocky floor is rapidly transforming. In less than five years, the murky waters have been cleared of the plankton and microscopic critters that are central to the food chain by the ceaseless and voracious filtering by some of the new lake residents.

The quagga mussels have become so prevalent, and are such efficient filterers, that the lake water is crystal clear. Admittedly, that sounds good---the crystal clear waters and sandy beaches of Lake Michigan. But this is no tourism pitch; and while our beaches on the third coast have always been great this is not an improvement.

For the first time, sunlight can now make it all the way to the lake bottom. As a result, algae has exploded covering everything at on the floor. Now, gobies, another invasive species, that feed on the algae are the most plentiful fish species in the lake; beaches are fouled by stinking layers of muck (dead algae); and there is some indication that this contributes to the high levels of E. coli noted in our recent Testing the Waters report.

The Mother Ship

Ballast water dumped from ocean-going vessels is the number one source of new species entering the Great Lakes. The big ships expel the water they use to stabilize their loads, often dumping foreign plants, animals, and viruses with it. The problem is not new. In fact, Michigan, has aggressive laws in place to address the problem already and other states are considering legislation.

But a new federal bill is attempting to streamline the legal landscape around this issue by putting enforcement into the hands of the Department of Homeland Security via the U.S. Coast Guard.

Despite the good intentions, this bill will make it harder to tame the rogue’s gallery of foreign species that have taken up homes in our inland waters. By shifting responsibility away from the EPA and states, the bill puts enforcement in the wrong hands, eliminates states' abilities to ratchet up protections, takes the Clean Water Act out of the picture, and creates a three-to-nine year delay in ending the procedures that are largely responsible for opening the lakes up to invasive species in the first place. That’s too little, and too long to wait.

With multimillion dollar industries, not to mention the quality of life and drinking water of 60 million at stake, this is not the time to toss the baby out with the ballast water and start with a new oversight regime. Let’s let the Coast Guard protect our shores. But leave the mussels with the folks who know them best at the EPA.

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Kyle KroekerAug 17 2008 11:38 PM

Sounds like the exact problem in the simpsons movie

How's this even a problem? The EPA will take care of it A. and B. Be thankful its just a lake and not an ocean

Josh MogermanAug 18 2008 11:32 AM

Kyle---As a native Springfieldian (IL), I am continually amazed at how often "The Simpsons" covers issues with meaning in my day-to-day life... And, yeah, I guess this is one of them.

There are real similarities with "The Simpson's Movie"---except that instead of pollution eating through Green Day's barge and creating mutant fish; we are talking about alien creatures (living pollution) coming in and killing off the native fish and messing up the ecosystem. Unlike the movie, in this case EPA is not the bad guy. They have the know-how to deal with living pollution and they are now being compelled by the courts to uphold the Clean Water Act to address this issue. Working with the States and the Guard, I hope we can get ahold of this issue...

...and no domes!

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