President Barack Obama's campaign promise to create a $5 billion trust fund for the Great Lakes could be crucial in the battle to sustain Michigan's most precious resource, experts said.
In September, then-candidate Obama proposed the trust fund to support lake and beach cleanups, rebuild lake infrastructure and battle invasive species. It would be financed through higher taxes on oil and gas companies, according to Obama for America, his official campaign committee.
Great Lakes Environmental Research LaboratoryScientists consider the quagga mussel (bottom) to be more dangerous to Lake Michigan than the zebra mussel (top).
Dan Scripps, Democratic representative from Leland, said he believes the plan is a step in the right direction for the Great Lakes.
"Seeing new attention being paid to the Great Lakes is a good thing," Scripps said. "After a long time of neglect, the Great Lakes are really at a tipping point."
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Great Lakes to state residents, especially those in his district, which encompasses Mason, Manistee, Benzie and Leelanau counties, Scripps said.
"For tourism, our economy and our livelihood, it's what defines living in Northwest Michigan."
James Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environment Council, said it's important to focus on the lakes before major problems occur rather than reacting to more serious problems down the road. Still, Clift said he's skeptical about the amount of federal aid that would reach the region under the Obama proposal.
"I expect that the lakes will get greater attention than they have in the past," Clift said. "Unfortunately, given these budget times, I'm not holding my breath that the $5 billion will be put into a trust fund."
Clift said one of the key dangers in recent years has been the introduction of invasive nuisance species that alter the ecosystem of the Great Lakes.
"They cost billions of dollars a year when some of these species first made it through our system," Clift said. "Long term, the cost could be even more devastating because we could see disruptions to the food chain in general."
One species that could drastically change the ecosystem is the quagga mussel, a relative of the better-known zebra mussel, another destructive invader.
According to Gary Fahnenstiel, a senior ecologist for Ann Arbor's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, quagga mussels are actually changing the appearance of the water.
"It's making the water column of Lake Michigan look more like Lake Superior," Fahnenstiel said, referring to increased clarity of the water. "It's probably having the most significant impact of any non-indigenous species in the Great Lakes."
Fahnenstiel, who is based at the laboratory's Lake Michigan Field Station in Muskegon, said the increased clarity means the lake's nutrients are being hoarded by the mussels, which could potentially starve other lake species.
The quaggas, which are about the size of a dime, have invaded the lake at an alarming rate. According to Fahnenstiel, since 2003 when the quaggas were first introduced to the Great Lakes, their population has grown to about 330 trillion.
Jim Fenner, president of the Ludington Area Charter Boat Association, said that explosion in growth could mean big problems for Michigan's local economies in the future. Sport fishing, which is a multi-million dollar industry in West Michigan, depends on the ecosystem staying the way it is, Fenner said.
According to Fenner, Ludington is one of many communities in West Michigan whose economy is tied strongly to salmon fishing.
"During the main part of the season, we have more than 60 charter boats," Fenner said. "Private fishermen probably outnumber us 20 to one. They spend the same amount of money on gas, fuel, and food as we do."
Fenner said the thriving fishing industry on Lake Michigan brings in millions of dollars each summer to local businesses, and a collapse in the ecosystem that supports the salmon would mean a collapse of the salmon industry.
Mark Tonello, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist in Cadillac, said the proposed trust fund money could fund research on ways to prevent invasive species from causing more damage. Still, Tonello said it may be too late to prevent the Great Lakes from permanent damage.
"In some instances, there may be no amount of money that can do anything," Tonello said. "There may be nothing we can do."