Chairman Senator Inhofe, Ranking Member Senator Jeffords, distinguished members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me here today to testify about The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes.
I will speak today about the tremendous importance to our nation of preserving and improving water quality in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence hydrological system.
Before taking my position managing the Lake Champlain Basin Program nearly seven years ago, I was a staff scientist in an environmental engineering firm, a member of the research faculty at McGill University specializing in military geosciences with a doctorate in biophysical remote sensing, and served on the faculty of the University of Vermont and Middlebury College.
I have a working knowledge of the water quality challenges facing large lakes across the nation. And I appreciate the pressing need for federal leadership in restoring and sustaining ecosystems that have become impaired through the development of our American society. The Great Lakes represent quite literally the greatest water quality challenge faced by our nation.
The Lake Champlain Basin Program is a bi-state and international partnership to restore water quality and improve the economy of the Lake Champlain Basin. Our partnership, now in its 15th year, involves the states of Vermont and New York, the Province of Quebec, New England Water Pollution Control Commission, and numerous US federal agencies, including the USEPA, the USDA, USDI, and the USACE.
The Lake Champlain Basin Program partners all work to implement a single comprehensive management plan called Opportunities for Action - An Evolving Plan for the Future of the Lake Champlain Basin. Our partnership with federal agencies is highly effective and through our work to restore our lake ecosystem, we are ensuring a better economic future for citizens of our region. The water quality of Lake Champlain is vitally important to our regional economy, particularly the tourism and recreation economy for which Vermont and the north country of New York are so well known.
Among the lessons learned in our work in the Lake Champlain Basin Program is that two of the greatest problems in our lake - water pollution and invasive aquatic nuisance species - have a key feature in common.
1) Water pollution due to excess nutrients and toxic substances is far cheaper to avoid and prevent than to clean up after the fact. and
2) The invasion of a lake by aquatic nuisance species introduced from other continents is a catastrophe that is far cheaper to prevent than to cope with after the infestation occurs.
The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes - being considered by this Committee - is a first-rate comprehensive management plan with many similarities to our Opportunities for Action plan for Lake Champlain.
The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy identifies the key challenges for the Great Lakes, and it provides a clear road map for a collaborative restoration effort. In fact, whether we are talking about Lake Champlain or the ‘truly’ Great Lakes - our first order of business is to keep their condition from dramatically worsening during our watch.
Today, water quality in many near-shore areas of the Great Lakes is in a virtual free-fall, and the nation needs this Committee to intervene with a program to turn aside some very troubling trends. Present trends are heading towards: drinking water that is a serious health risk for tens of millions of Americans; burgeoning numbers of invasive aquatic nuisance species; and ecosystem impairments that, if left unchecked, will take centuries and untold billions of dollars to remedy.
The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy is an action plan that clearly addresses the most pressing lake stewardship needs. Senate bill S. 508 provides a multi-state, multi-agency collaborative leadership of the sort that has a proven track record in Lake Champlain, and mandates the kind of interagency cooperation that we have found essential for success.
The Lake Champlain Basin Program, established by Congress in the “Lake Champlain Special Designation Act of 1990,” and further authorized in the “Daniel Patrick Moynihan Great Lakes and Lake Champlain Act of 2002” has created our active federal, state and local agency collaboration. S. 508 establishes a similar collaboration that will generate measurable in-the-water results to get this job done.
The common interests of Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes should be no surprise, especially concerning invasive nuisance species management, because both Lake Champlain and Lake Ontario empty into the St. Lawrence River. Lake Champlain is drained to the north by the Richelieu River into the St. Lawrence, which also is the outlet river for Lake Ontario.
There is also a second water connection where the southern part of Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes are connected by the New York Canal System and the Hudson River. One can travel by boat from Chicago, Illinois to Burlington, VT, using either route. These two connections are used by many recreational boaters.
Unfortunately, these two waterway connections also have been used for decades by invading nuisance species. Zebra mussels, native to Europe, were introduced to the Great Lakes by the dumping of contaminated shipping ballast waters. Then, they invaded Lake Champlain by way of the Erie Canal, the Hudson River, and the Champlain Canal. Now zebra mussels are established throughout Lake Champlain.
This invasion route was also used by white perch, which is rapidly displacing our native yellow perch. Gizzard shad, blue-back herring, faucet snail, globe siltsnail, purple loosestrife, yellow floating heart, and the infamous water chestnut, also have invaded our lake. Of the 48 invasive aquatic species in the Lake Champlain Basin, 13 species have entered Lake Champlain from the Great Lakes by way of the canals, and the rate of new arrivals is increasing. We applaud the recognition in The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy of the need to examine the costs and benefits of techniques to intercept the passage of invasive species through the Champlain Canal system.
There are now more than 160 invasive aquatic species plaguing the Great Lakes watershed. We face a critical and immediate need to tighten our nation’s control of ballast water management by ships transiting the St. Lawrence River, or this problem will go from very bad to even worse. These ships are the primary sources and vectors of invasive aquatic nuisance species in the Great Lakes and this critical problem is clearly presented in the The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy.
Over the past 15 years, and with continuing federal funding, the Lake Champlain Basin Program has issued nearly 600 research, monitoring and plan implementation contracts. Last year we introduced a new Ecosystem Indicators program to characterize the pressures on our lake water quality, to better measure the current state of this resource, and to guide our adaptive management response.
While Lake Champlain is only 120 miles long, I believe that our 15-year management and research experience is of real and immediate value to the management collaborative dealing with the Great Lakes system. My point here is that we all achieve a ‘better bang for the buck’ if we share the lake-management science both our systems require.
To that end, the Lake Champlain Basin Program stands ready to share the lake management experiences of our smaller system in all aspects of plan implementation, research, ecosystem indicators, monitoring, education and outreach. We also acknowledge the great benefit to us that would accrue from increased cooperative linkages with the Great Lakes restoration efforts.
We have had success in the Lake Champlain Basin in reversing the nutrient trends to reduce phosphorus in several major tributaries, we have successfully removed PCB-contaminated sediments and reclaimed Cumberland Bay, and we have effectively controlled water chestnut infestations in the southern part of Lake Champlain. We have established a well-coordinated program to monitor for blue-green algae toxins and to alert state and provincial agencies when human health risks occur. Whether modeling the effects of excess nutrients, the impact of invasive species, the persistence of toxins, or conducting trials of restoration strategies, the Lake Champlain Basin can be an ideal proving ground for Great Lakes management initiatives. This would allow more effective designs for the much larger Great Lakes watersheds.
The challenges facing Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes are so similar, that a more collaborative approach to sharing the science and management experience that we both need is cost-effective and good common sense. We would welcome any opportunity to participate in an Advisory or Observer role envisaged by S. 508, and offer appropriate reciprocity.
America today faces unprecedented challenges of ecosystem damage and resultant declines in water quality, contaminated and weed-infested waterways, and polluted lakes and estuaries across the nation. Nowhere is there more at stake than in the Great Lakes, which contain 20% of the fresh surface water on the planet, and 90% of the fresh surface water of the nation.
Our cultural habits have compromised drinking water supplies for millions of Americans, caused desperate struggles for survival in the tourism and recreation industries, and created an alarming trend towards more and greater problems in the near future.
Short-funding the stewardship of our surface waters, whether in Lake Champlain or in the much larger Great Lakes, is surely no way to save money. With each passing year, water pollution and invasive species problems get far more costly, not less costly. The most cost-effective solution to ensure the future of the Great Lakes is to invest adequately in their restoration, including the toughening of ballast water controls, at the earliest possible date. Any alternative is likely to be a false economy in the short term and result in a burgeoning burden of additional accrued contamination and sharply increased costs of restoration in the long term.
Finally, the work of environmental restoration is not only about conservation philosophy or environmental ethics. As we know so well in the northeast, it is about the vitality of towns and cities, and the vigor of the recreation economy and quality of life for hundreds of shoreline communities large and small. It is also about our nation’s economic engines. It is about ample clean water for industry, and clean effluent from industry. It is about trucks on the highway, the pulse of commerce and trade. It is about smell and safety of tap water for some 40 million people in the cities of America’s heartland.
I thank the Committee for taking on this high priority challenge. I thank you also for the invitation to testify and I look forward to answering your questions.
1) Opportunities for Action - An Evolving Plan for the Future of the Lake Champlain Basin. 2003. Lake Champlain Basin Program. Grand Isle, VT. 134 pp.
2) State of the Lake - Lake Champlain in 2005, A Snapshot for Citizens. 2005. Lake Champlain Basin Program. Grand Isle, VT. 25 pp.