Congressional panel hears of Great Lakes needs
Written by Associated Press   
Monday, 21 April 2008 09:05

Witnesses told a House subcommittee Friday that declining water levels of the Great Lakes and growing invasive species in those waters demand strong federal action that shouldn't be delayed.

"We're still approaching it piecemeal," Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Matt Frank said.

He said a stronger federal partnership would speed the process of protecting and healing the lakes from environmental damage.

"We need some federal policies in this area, and it's really time to act. The best solution here is prevention. When we know what the problem is, let's stop doing it."

The two-hour hearing drew about 300 people at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. It was held by the subcommittee on water resources and environment, of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Dean Haen, Green Bay port director, said his harbor's water level has been 12 to 24 inches below normal for several years, limiting shipping and creating higher costs for consumers.

Shipping was a $76 million industry in Green Bay in 2007, providing 600 jobs, he said.

But Haen said every inch that is lost in water level results in lost business for the harbor.

George Meyer, president of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former state DNR secretary, said fishing and hunting have been seriously affected by the lower water levels and invasive species.

"We're finally getting to the time when we're going to do something about it," he said. "It's been a long time coming."

Washington Island resident Charlie Imig said the low water hampers the vital ferry service to the island.

"We're at wit's end," Imig said. "It's our lifeline."

James Weakley, president of the Cleveland-based Lake Carriers Association, said there could be a simple solution to the troubles that low water causes his industry.

"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates removing the backlog (of channel dredging) will cost more than $230 million," Weakley said. "That's less than it cost to reconfigure a single intersection south of Chicago."

The Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has a $4.1 billion surplus, he said, and the $230 million would be only 6 percent of that.

"This hearing will have a dramatic impact on the legislation we're going to write," said Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Appleton, as the session ended.

The subcommittee included Kagen, Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Fond du Lac, and Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas.

"This really was a coming together of a broad range of issues," Petri said. "All agree there is a problem and we aren't denying there is an issue. We need to put in place a mechanism to address it."

Kagen said the next step would be approving the Great Lakes Compact by all seven states bordering the lakes. The compact would prevent diversion of lake water to states outside the Great Lakes basin.

The Wisconsin Legislature is expected to approve the compact as early as next week.

"Then it's in our court and Congress must create federal standards on ballast water and prevention" of increasing aquatic invasive species, Kagen said.
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