Great Lakes in our hands

“There’s nothing wrong with emotion, and there’s nothing wrong with an emotional connection to the Great Lakes.” This statement, boldly and passionately spoken by Lana Pollack, President of the Michigan Environmental Council, calls out to residents of the Great Lakes region. Perhaps, with great effort, this message can be echoed throughout America, and not only about the Great Lakes Region, but about every unique and invaluable natural resource our country has to offer.

The absence of this emotional connection has led to the exploitation and degradation of the wealth of the Great Lakes region. However, this exploitation is not without opposition. The public of the Great Lakes Region has become active in protecting and conserving the region in which they live. For example, the public played a significant role in preventing the Perrier Group in 2001 from extracting millions of gallons of water from the Lake Michigan watershed. Additionally, public opposition of the drilling for gas and oil in Lake Michigan decided the fate for the Newstar Energy USA company, forcing legislation for a ban on drilling of the Great Lakes.

These are not only success stories; they are inspiration for the future of the Great Lakes. These cases show that the public can be, and is, educated and has the direct means to become involved with the preservation of our natural resources. This leads us to the question, what can we do locally to improve Lake Ontario? How can students get involved? How can we utilize Lake Ontario, or any natural resource sustainably? How have we already begun to do this? These aren’t questions that should merely be pondered and stored away; it is time to take action and give back to an ecosystem that we take so much from. This can only provide a positive future for us and generations to come.

In 2001, the Perrier Group proposed to begin extracting 210 million gallons of water out of the Lake Michigan watershed to subsequently be bottled and sold. Much of this water would not make its way back to Lake Michigan. This would significantly lower lake levels, dry up private wells and alter coastal ecosystems dramatically. The government seemed to jump at the economic opportunity the project presented with the project (a sad example of how neoclassical economics has been demonstrated to rule in government). Terry Swier, a retired librarian and a resident of Horsehead Lake, organized the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation to Oppose Perrier. This was an entirely citizen-run organization consisting of concerned locals, many of which had no experience in such a group. In 2003, the issue was taken to court. They initially concluded that the Perrier group, which was taken over by Nestle, violated the Michigan Environmental Protection Act by draining water from a wetland. After many appeals, a compromise was reached in which Nestle was granted a very limited amount of water to be taken from the watershed. This is a prime example of the power that the public holds. If more locals were involved, Nestle could have been pushed out of the region completely. Lake Michigan’s ecosystem could have been severely impacted without the intervention of the public.

Another example that demonstrates the influential command of the public also occured in 2001. Newstar Energy USA company was planning on drilling into the natural gas and oil reserves beneath Lake Michigan and Lake Huron from onshore wellheads. A moratorium in 1997 put off the drilling initially. During this postponement, a science panel (most likely hired with specific objectives in mind) found that there would be negligible effects of oil leakage upward from the reserves and only a slightly greater risk of onshore wellhead leakage. Governor John Engler planned to cancel the moratorium in 1998 and prompted nearly 30 leases for drilling. In response, the Lake Michigan Federation organized citizens that wanted to let their voices be heard. Any risk of leakage is a huge risk. One specific citizen, Paul Parks, actually convinced Grand Haven City Council to write a statute that banned all drilling. This was counteracted by Engler’s control of the State Natural Resources Commission which approved leases for drilling in 2001. Subsequently the League of Conservation Voters ran a poll that showed that those opposed to the drilling were twice the amount of those who were not opposed. This caused Senator Leon Stille to decide that the public opposition was too overwhelming to continue on with the project. So, in March of 2002, there was a complete authoritative ban on drilling. This was owed entirely to the action and oppositional uproar by the citizens of Lake Michigan and the surrounding areas. These examples can only provide a source of inspiration for future action. The public can get involved in the community and help make a difference in how resources are utilized.

There are plenty of ways to live sustainably and utilize Lake Ontario appropriately. Oswego State has taken the initiative to utilize the winds coming off the lakes by building an 18-foot-tall wind turbine on top of Lee Hall for alternative energy. This turbine can produce 40,000 kilowatt hours worth of electricity each year. In addition, the new science building will be constructed in order to utilize geothermal energy by drilling holes to make use of the Earth’s natural energy, as well as photovoltaic panels on the roof for heating.

With regards to Lake Ontario, the Department of Environmental Conservation is continually doing research on the state of Lake Ontario’s fisheries and employing fishery restoration projects such as stocking. They also operate an educational center to keep people informed about the condition of Lake Ontario and ways to help. In addition, there are pages on social networking sites, such as Facebook, that allow students to organize events that are directed at Oswego State students. Any student can access these pages in order to find ways to help. On these pages, one can find dates for beach cleanups and ways to reduce waste. They are public, so anyone can get involved. Another program that can get people involved in conservation efforts is Bring Back the Salmon (Lake Ontario). Anyone can volunteer to go through some training to identify Atlantic salmon or to be involved in stocking events, stream rehabilitation, awareness programs or become a sponsor of the program’s efforts. These are just a few ways to get involved in efforts to restore and maintain a healthy Lake Ontario.

As a nation, using our resources in a sustainable way is crucial. In essence, sustainable living just means living in moderation. We don’t just coexist with our environment, we depend on it, and the health of the environment depends on how well we can manage it. Companies such as the Perrier Group, Newstar Energy USA, as well as many people in positions of authority such as Gov. John Engler become blinded by economic opportunity and throw sustainability to the wind. As a part of the public body, we can begin the movement to get the most out of our resources without depleting them. There needs to be public vigor to oppose companies and to make people who don’t understand the important connection between humans and their environment more aware. It’s important to get educated, involved and to find that connection, because “good laws and institutions are based on both – on the capacity of humankind to reason critically and feel strongly.”


2 thoughts on “Great Lakes in our hands

  1. Well done Ms. Cassidy! Another organization the you and your readers may be interested in is the Eastern Lake Ontario Dune Coalition. Oswego County is blessed with a coastal dune system containing several unique varieties of flora and fauna. They even have a “Dune Stewards” program during the summer months that may be of interest to you or your fellow students.

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