U.S. Water News Online
TORONTO -- When Canada and the United States approved the
Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972, the running joke in
Cleveland was that anyone unlucky enough to fall into the Cuyahoga
River would decay rather than drown.
The Cuyahoga, which meanders through the city before reaching Lake
Erie, helped inspire the cleanup initiative by literally catching
fire three years earlier. The lower end of the 112-mile-long waterway
was a foul brew of oil, sludge, sewage and chemicals. It made
embarrassing headlines when its surface flamed for about 30 minutes.
Today the river is returning to health under a plan developed
through the binational agreement. Pollution levels have fallen.
Nearly 70 fish species have been detected in areas once considered
virtually lifeless. Bald eagle nests have been spotted nearby.
"Maybe one day we'll actually be able to swim within the harbor,"
says Ed Hauser, an environmental activist who launches his kayaks
from a park at the river mouth. "I'll get my feet wet, but I sure
don't want to fall in there."
The U.S. and Canadian governments are considering whether to
update and strengthen the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which
hasn't been significantly revised since 1987. It commits the two
countries to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical and
biological integrity" of the world's biggest surface freshwater
system -- a mission that many see as only partly accomplished.
Although the lakes and their major tributaries are less polluted
than four decades ago, states continue warning children and women of
childbearing age to limit fish consumption because of lingering
toxicity. Algae overgrowth and a resulting oxygen-starved "dead zone"
in Lake Erie, all but eliminated by the early 1980s, are returning.
And the waters face threats that were recognized barely if at all
when the agreement first was crafted, such as the exotic species
invasion, climate change and shoreline development.
Despite increasingly urgent warnings from scientists and activists
that the lakes are in peril, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
and its counterpart, Environment Canada, "have no preconceived notion
that we will or will not revise the agreement," says Mark Elster,
senior analyst with the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office.
A committee representing both countries is studying the matter. A
decision isn't likely before next year, Elster says.
"Our only requirement right now is to review the agreement -- its
operation and effectiveness," he says. "The outcome of this process
will be a report to the two governments on what could be done."
Many supporters say the agreement has lost clout and could become
irrelevant unless overhauled.
There's no shortage of programs aimed at cleaning up the Great
Lakes; a 2003 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office
identified 140 on the federal level alone. Yet the water quality
agreement is unique because it obligates the two countries to work
toward the same goals. Although not legally binding, it carries moral
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