Grading Senator Kirk's Lake Michigan Report Card

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Illinois Senator Mark Kirk released the first of what is promised to be an annual “Report Card for Lake Michigan” this week. Senator Kirk is a long-time Great Lakes advocate, having targeted sewage management, beach water quality, industrial pollution and Great Lakes funding as central issues of his previous service as Congressman from the 10th Congressional District of Illinois, which abuts Lake Michigan.

Let me emphasize how heartening it is to see that, as a Senator, he continues to embrace Great Lakes quality and protection as central issues. Far too many elected officials today are turning away from core commitments to environmental protection in DC’s poisonous current climate.  The Senator’s “Report Card” is a positive signal that his interest in our Great Lakes has not been corroded and suggests that the Great Lakes, which constitute 95% of America’s fresh surface water, remain capable of garnering broad, bi-partisan support.

But, maybe I am getting a little ahead of myself….Let’s look at that Report Card, which highlights six critical issues and assigns grades on current efforts to address them:

  1. Beach water quality (D)
  2. Sewage pollution (C)
  3. Mercury contamination (“incomplete”)
  4. Water level shifts in the Lakes (D)
  5. Toxic cleanups (B)
  6. Invasive species (C)

These combine into an overall grade of a solid “C” from the Senator for the state of Lake Michigan. Not anywhere near the head of the class; but in no danger of flunking out either…

While we could quibble with some of the letter grades assigned, Senator Kirk deserves much credit for putting together a valuable document that can help stimulate really important policy discussions about the health of the Great Lakes and what we need to do to make it better.  But I must register concern that some of the basic causes and solution sets for the problems outlined have become hopefully politicized in Washington, which is probably inconvenient for Kirk. Some examples:

  • There is no way to talk about the beach water quality, sewage pollution or Lake levels without talking about climate change. The increasing ferocity of storms we are currently experiencing is exactly what has been forecast by leading scientists and our infrastructure simply isn’t up to what the future will be dishing out. Violent rainstorms quickly overwhelm the aging combined sewers in the region, which invariably results in dumping of sewage into the Lake (or, in Chicago’s case, into the Chicago River which also backs up and forces regulators to open the locks to flush polluted water out into the Lake to relieve pressure). And scientists have made clear that they expect the changing climate to ravage Lake levels in coming decades. While Congress has disappointingly abdicated its responsibility to address the issue, that does not mean action has dissipated. The Supreme Court has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to deal with greenhouse gas pollution. Yet many in Congress are blocking the Agency from taking this legally required action. Senator Kirk should keep this connection in mind when the issue is raised in the Senate as part of a spate of bills and spending packages coming from the House of Representatives.
  • The Senator is absolutely correct in pointing to mercury, the powerful neurotoxin that has become so pervasive that eating fish from  the Lakes unsafe for children, pregnant women and people with immune deficiencies. Progress on fixing this problem requires that we look at the major sources of continuing mercury pollution to the Great Lakes (and other waters of the United States): air emissions from coal fired power plants that need to be cleaned up or closed if we are to fix the problem he identifies. The way to achieve this pollution is readily at hand: through the Clean Air Act, which will require coal fired plants to clean up or close. In this regard, the Clean Air Act is under relentless attack in Congress by some officials who seek to prevent application of the Act to the sources of mercury pollution. A strong defense of the Clean Air Act as the solution to the mercury poisoning that rightly concerns him is critical. His voice in support of the Clean Air Act in this context would be powerful and very welcome in dealing with the problem.
  • And finally, we agree on the looming threat of invasive species, though perhaps not on the scope of the problem. Senator Kirk focuses largely on Asian carp. And certainly carp are a massive concern in this area---but they shouldn’t be THE concern. The report card focuses on keeping carp out of the Great Lakes by turning up the voltage on the failed electric barrier. But that does very little to address the 40 other species that the Army Corps of Engineers has identified as dangers to move between the Lakes and Mississippi Rivers through Chicago’s waterways. And it does nothing to address the quagga mussels that are transforming Lake Michigan by literally sucking the life out of the ecosystem, having already devoured more than 80% of the phytoplankton that is the base of the food chain. If we don’t do anything about that, the ecosystem may just collapse. And if we focus solely on Asian carp, we will be stuck with ineffective half-measures like the electric carp barrier rather than doing the hard work of finding a way to put a permanent physical barrier in place to put an end to the movement of invasive species between the continent’s two greatest aquatic systems once and for all.

OK, so we differ a bit on the grades. But again, I think the Senator is highlighting all the right issues and points to some very important policy solutions. At a time when the budget axe looms over everything in Washington, DC, it is supremely comforting to know that Senator Kirk (and fellow Illinois Senator Dick Durbin) understands the issues and stands ready to fight on behalf of the Lakes.

I recognize that these are tough political battles. Kudos to the Senator for this initial report card. If this is going to be an annual thing, I hope that some of these core issues will make their way into the mix next year. For many voters in Illinois, his engagement on these issues will help them put together their own report card on the state’s delegation in DC.


Low Lake Levels image by Michigan Sea Grant via Flickr