INTRO: The EPA administers The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Congress provided $475 for it last year and $300 million this year. Last week, EPA officials spoke to 1,000 people in Detroit. Various organizations held joint conferences that made up Great Lakes Week. This week, top officials are coming back….to see some restoration work near Saginaw. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.
Water is sacred. God-given. Not for people to waste. That’s the ancestral belief about water, according to Frank Ettawageshik, Director of the United Tribes of Michigan. He’s an Odawa from near Harbor Springs.
“When you turn your tap on and you get water from the municipal water supply and then you pay your water bill you’re paying for the service of having water delivered to you. But we have to stay away from the idea that we’re actually buying the water itself. Because if we’re buying the water we’re effectively saying we have to buy life. That’s not something we can buy.”
Native Americans and other indigenous peoples throughout history have looked at natural resources as inheritance. You’re not supposed to buy it, sell it and use it up like petroleum or even chocolate. It’s not a commodity.
“We’re working to preserve and protect the future generations of mankind on this earth,” said Ettawageshik.
These ideals were embraced by many of the participants that shuttled around the four conferences in Detroit. It was called Great Lakes Week. This Canadian official has the same wants as a typical Michigander.
“We want the Great Lakes to continue to provide a high quality source of drinking water for basin residents. We want the beaches that surround the Great Lakes to be safe to swim in unhampered by pollutants, algae or other stressors. We want fish and wildlife that can be caught and eaten without restrictions due to their chemical content.”
Many people at the conferences have spent decades on these issues. Patty Birkholz is Governor Snyder’s Director of the Office of the Great Lakes. She was a state senator, representative and started out fighting to preserve the fragile coastal dunes in Saugatuck. That particular fight is not over. But these days she feels empowered by allies in 8 states and 2 Canadian provinces.
“Some of us thought we’d be dead before we’d ever see anything happen,” Birkholz said.
The Environmental Protection Agency is in charge of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. It has 5 goals. Cleaning up toxic materials, combating invasive species; stopping pollution that runs from rivers into the lakes, restoring wetlands and getting the public educated.
“A lot of this couldn’t be done without money. But the good thing is it’s not just the money. Because we’re not getting enough. The feds aren’t dropping it on our tables and saying ok Michigan go do this, this, this and this. They say here’s some money. Let’s look at several different projects over several different areas and you go find partners.”
Today, Birkholz is coming to the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge. It’s in Saginaw County. Birkholz has partnered with Ducks Unlimited and The Saginaw Bay Watershed Iniative Network. These groups are celebrating the restoration of 140 acres of farmland. They’ve removed the drainage tiles so water moves as nature intended. Phosphorus runs off of farms and ends up causing algae blooms. They create dead spots like Lake Erie is getting now.
“What you’re doing on the ground, acre by acre, gallon by gallon, to bring this amazing ecosystem back is working,” said Cameron Davis.
He was speaking last week in Detroit. He’s a top official at the EPA and he too is coming to where the Tittabawassee, Shiawassee, Flint and Cass Rivers meet and form the Saginaw River. Davis is not fighting farmers. He’s fighting the phosphorous they use.
“It creates this growth of plant life like algae out on our coasts. We need to reduce and prevent that from getting in as much as possible. So that means working to reduce the amount of phosphorous that’s going in as part of our fertilizers that means reducing the phosphorous that comes in from out treatment plants as well. And we’re not going to see the results over night. But we do need to get to work now. It’s very urgent.”
Acre by acre, gallon by gallon. This what the EPA’s Cameron Davis calls the ground game. The winners are: people of course, then frogs on the ground and in the water. And above the Shiawassee Refuge, 65,000 birds a day.