Friday, February 27, 2009

Answering the Question

The conservationists who attended Great Lakes Day in Washington this week got an answer yesterday to their question about President Obama’s commitment to the Great Lakes. $475 million has been allocated to create a Great Lakes restoration project led by the EPA. I saw reports of this in three newspapers – the Kenosha News, Chicago Tribune, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

I do not read three newspapers every morning – I went looking for articles on this topic on-line. The articles were from an AP press release. I am sure other papers - from Buffalo and Detroit to Cleveland and Duluth - reported on the item, too.

I do read, however, the New York Times daily. I find its coverage of international and national events a good balance for the primarily local coverage of our hometown paper. I was not surprised that the Times did not cover this aspect of the proposed budget. Its reports on the budget focused more on policy shifts, healthcare, and taxes.

But in the Escapes section, a weekly collection of travel and leisure articles, I found an article about Porcupine Mountains State Park , which are located on the south shore of Lake Superior. The article caught my eye because my husband and I were there years ago on a wonderful camping trip. This article was about winter camping in the area. Our camping trip was in August when the black flies were ferocious. Although winter camping is not my style, I wondered if the advantage of snow and ice might be no biting flies.

Back to the proposal for GL restoration. One report of the project said the EPA does not want to do this in a piecemeal fashion with small improvements here and there. Rather, they plan to approach it with the entire Great Lakes watershed in mind. That is a shift in thinking, according to the EPA.

Although specifics of the project remain to be determined, action is expected to start quickly, with regional collaboration to determine priorities. So yes, there is a commitment to the Great Lakes in this administration. When implemented, an impact should be felt in Toledo and Kenosha, Milwaukee and Sandusky. Buffalo and Erie.

And in New York City, too. All those folks who read about winter camping in the Porkies will want to go there. Maybe they will visit in the summer too, unless they read what I said about the biting flies. However, just letting east-coasters know about the treasures in the Great Lakes region is a good start. If they don’t want to visit the UP of Michigan, there are also miles of inland coastline to explore. Cities and small towns, too, and $475M will go a long way to improving the draw.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Two Important Events I Didn’t Attend

I have had this feeling all morning that I am supposed to be somewhere else. It’s kind of a reverse daja vu. Perhaps I am thinking I should be in Florida, still on vacation, or perhaps walking on some exotic beach I have never been to at all.

But no, that’s not it. Today is Conservation Day in Madison, Wisconsin, and I think that is where I should be. As an alternative, I could be in Washington DC at Great Lakes Days there. Alas, I am here in Wisconsin, only thinking and reading about both of those events.

In Madison, Conservation Day is sponsored by the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters as a day to learn and lobby on conservation issues. If I couldn’t attend the session, the least I could do is read their literature, so I downloaded the Wisconsin Conservation Priorities 2009 brochure, which has been prepared to present to state legislators. The pictures alone were worth the download. The document is very well done, first presenting the issue, then providing solutions, talking points for lobbying, and additional resources.

The WLCV list four main priorities for 2009:
* Preserving Groundwater
* Stopping Global Warming
* Restoring conservation integrity
* Restoring drinking water

Three of the four topics were familiar to me. The fourth, conservation integrity, required additional research and so I got an introduction to yet another area to be concerned about, the polticalization (is that really a word?) of the DNR in Wisconsin. Yikes. Do I need one more thing to worry about? Looks like I do.

The website of the Great Lakes Coalition, the folks who sponsor Great Lakes Days in Washington, does a nice job of explaining the purpose of the annual event. So I will quote them here and encourage you to check out who the members of the coalition are as well as read more about them on their website. They say “As part of the annual Great Lakes Day in Washington, DC, the Healing Our Waters® - Great Lakes Coalition (HOW) brings coalition members and allies from the Great Lakes states to Washington to discuss the importance of restoring and protecting the Great Lakes with elected officials on Capitol Hill...”.

One of the issues this group is following closely is how President Obama will keep his campaign promises to help the Great Lakes region. It’s more than the auto industry that is of concern to these Great Lakers. It’s the lakes themselves, protecting them, as well as the jobs and environment of the people who live with their basin.

I wish I could have been at both gatherings. I am sure it would have been great to schmooze with people of like minds and learn from them as well. I am so pleased that there are people who take the time and effort to attend these important events. Unfortunately I am not one of them, at least not this year. Maybe next year. Perhaps I should put them both on my calendar now for 2010.

Technorati Profile

Monday, February 23, 2009

My Neighborhood, My Ecosystem

I haven’t posted any pictures of the lake in the past few days. It’s not that I haven’t been out walking my dog, Burlee, along the shore. It’s more because we have had another blast of cold air here and I didn’t want to take my mittens off to use the camera. However, yesterday afternoon, even though it was still cold, I took my camera on our afternoon walk. The picture at the top is proof. I guess, just as much as I try not to, I sometimes take the lake for granted. When I wake up it is there; when I travel, it waits for me. It is a constant in my life.

Yet I know the lake is ever changing. I monitor some of those changes daily - like the color of the water and the height of the waves. In winter, I watch the changing ice conditions. In summer, I watch the changing wind direction and welcome those that blow off the lake to cool me. All year long, I watch the patterns of shifting sand at the beach.

I watch the butterflies, birds, and bugs, too. The geese, ducks, and gulls are around all year. That's some of them yesterday in the harbor. I have seen an occasional cardinal couple in the winter, too, and in the spring, more birds will arrive. In June, you can’t help but notice the mayflies, as it is impossible to walk by the lake without getting them in your face. I took this picture of them swarming over the trees last summer. They are so big, they look like a flock of birds, don’t they?

You could say I am quite familiar with my ecosystem. An ecosystem is made of living creatures and their environment, so I guess my neighborhood is my ecosystem. I first learned about ecosystems when I was working on my graduate degree in microbiology. The program I was in at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee required all students in the Biology Department to study areas outside their main area of interest. I had to take one course in Ecology and one in Anatomy and Physiology to pass my oral exams.

I took Ecology during a summer semester. At that time, I had two small children, and my husband’s only vacation time was in July. These are not good excuses, but I missed a number of classes that summer. I did do the reading, but passed the course with a grade I am not particularly proud of.

Nonetheless, I learned a lot. One of the most interesting topics was for me was the classic study of lake ecology at the Indiana Dunes. I suppose I remember it because the Dunes is a place I have visited many times. The study, which was done by the famous ecologist Henry Cowles from the University of Chicago in the early 1900’s, was the definitive study on plant succession and soil changes at the Lake Michigan shoreline.

All this rumination on ecosystems is because of my earlier question about why diverting water away from the Great Lakes is bad for the ecosystem. Isn’t an ecosystem always changing? Why does diverting water matter?

The quick and dirty answer is because even minor diversions in, out or inside of the basin, alter the quality of water. Diversions impact the fish in the lakes, recreational use of the shoreline, and effect ground water in the basin. They can influence climate changes. They have an effect on commercial shipping in the Great Lakes and the production of hydroelectric power. They can bring invasive species in the area. They can stress the vegetation at the shoreline, increase flooding and soil loss by erosion.

And that’s just the quick and dirty look at the problem. There are many sources to go to for a more in depth analysis of the problem. I know you won’t be surprised if I tell you about them – soon. There’s a good library in my ecosystem. Those boats to the left, patiently waiting for summer to come, are in my ecosystem, too.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Another Book, Several More Lessons

I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, not the juicy hamburger I was dreaming about last time. After lunch, I went to the library and took out a book on the Great Lakes that I have borrowed twice before. I would have purchased the book but the bookstore did not have it in stock and I was too impatient to wait for it to come by mail.

The book is The Great Lakes Water Wars by Peter Annin. Much of what I have learned about water diversion out of the Great Lakes Basin comes from Annin’s research and excellent writing. Annin writes in an easy to read manner but the book is filled with hard facts. One chapter talks about the Aral Sea in Central Asia and how over a mere 25 year span the lake lost 90 percent of its volume and 75 percent of its surface area. A once thriving ecosystem was destroyed; an environmental lesson provided, but perhaps one not yet heeded.

The significant portion of the book is about the movements, both successful and failed, to divert water out of the basin, such as to the arid Southwest, and efforts to prevent them. One chapter details the history of the Chicago River reversal. Two others describe the legal battles waged by Waukesha and Pleasant Prairie Wisconsin to get Lake Michigan water. Fascinating stuff.

The cover of the book has a quote from Michael P. Dombeck. I am not sure who he is but I like what he said. “Water is the lifeblood of the forty million people who live in the Great Lakes Basin. This book should be required reading for anyone whose life depends on Great Lakes water.” I agree.

Annin’s book is due to be published in paperback in May. I may wait for it, or I may buy it in hardcover, or just keep borrowing it from the library. Even if you decide to neither buy nor borrow this book, check out Annin’s website Great Lakes Water Wars where you can listen to a short video. You'll learn a lot in twenty minutes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Influencing an Ecosystem

My mother was born in Hamilton Ontario, and when I was a kid, most of her family still lived there. I spent many Sundays in the back seat of a ’53 Buick driving through Niagara Falls, New York, past the Love Canal area (topic for another day), across the bridge at Lewiston or Queenston into Canada and up the QEW to Hamilton.

Often at the Welland Canal, we had to stop to wait for a ship to go through the locks. In those days there was no overhead bridge as there is now, and we would watch the drawbridge slowly go up, watch the ship slowly move through the canal, then watch the bridge slowly come back down. Fortunately, for us, there was Savages. Savages was a hamburger joint right on the banks of the canal. My mouth still waters when I think of those juicy hamburgers. They were the saving grace of having to wait at the canal.

I never knew the Welland Canal was a “diversion”. A diversion is a transfer of water from one watershed to another. I had no idea what a watershed was. I did know that ships had to use the Canal because they couldn’t use the Niagara River to travel between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. There is a pretty big obstacle in the river preventing passage. But other than that the canal was just another landmark on the way to visiting my cousins.

Even now that I know about diversions and watersheds, I still don’t think of the Welland Canal as a major influence on the Great Lakes Basin. It was built to facilitate shipping. It doesn’t take water away from the lakes, it simply reroutes it, unlike the Chicago Shipping and Sanitary Canal, which reroutes the water so much it never gets back into the Great Lakes.

Water diversion can be into, within or out of the basin. Several diversions such as at the Welland Canal and around cities such as Detroit, Hamilton, and London Ontario provide municipal water and return the treated water back to the basin. Other diversions take water from rivers and put them into the basin, such as the Ogoki and Long Lac where water flows into Lake Superior. The Great Lakes Water Institute has a nice summary on the topic of diversion.

Chicago has one of the most well-known diversions out of the Great Lakes Basin. At the turn of the 20th century, the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was built to clean up the filth from the Chicago stockyards that polluted the Chicago River and made it a public health nightmare. The canal took the water away from Chicago, into the Des Plaines River, to the Illinois River, then to the Mississippi, where it eventually flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. The city of St Louis protested the reversal, but not loud enough or fast enough, and on January 2, 1900, the river’s direction was reversed.

As time went on more and water was diverted from the basin, and not just to clean up the muck. Communities all around Chicago wanted to buy water for their expanding population. My family and I lived in Naperville, Illinois in DuPage County west of Chicago for 20 years. I well remember when Naperville changed from well water to Lake Michigan water in the 1990’s. Our water tasted better, and we no longer needed a water softener. There were still restrictions on water use in the summer and the cost went up, but we thought it was worth it. It never occurred to me that I was influencing a huge ecosystem by drinking such good water.

Two other major diversions of water out of the basin are in my own backyard. One is to Pleasant Prairie, which I think of as a suburb of Kenosha. The other is to Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. All three of these diversions have occupied legal professionals for decades.

What is the effect of diverting water from the basin? Why does it affect the ecosystem? That’s what I need to learn. I am going to spend this afternoon reading more about it. Great Lakes Blogger David Dempsey wrote about Waukesha yesterday if you want to check out his comments about that situation.

Before I begin my reading, I plan to get some lunch. What I really want is to drive to Savages. I would eat slowly while watching the big freighters ooze slowly through the narrow Canal. That would be such a treat, but I will have to settle for something from closer to home, like a cheese sandwich, made from Wisconsin cheese, of course.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ah, But I Diverse

After my brief sojourn to warmer waters, I began contemplating my next Great Lakes topic. Should I learn more about the details of the Great Lake Pact, which went into effect this past December? Should I think about conservation, geology, the cultural history of the people who developed this area, or should I focus on natural history? I wasn’t sure but I found my answer, at least for today, in the Sunday newspapers.

Both the Kenosha News and the Chicago Tribune had articles about the advantage Lake Michigan provides in Chicago’s bid to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to this area. What seems obvious to me provided the basis of several stories about how the lakefront will be used if Chicago wins. Of course, the lake is an advantage, although I suppose the people Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo also think the landscape of their city has distinct advantages, too.

Some of the advantages Lake Michigan offers are “no brainers”. Plans are to modify the already existing Northerly Island and Monroe Harbor for beach volleyball, rowing, canoeing, sailing, windsurfing, and kayaking. North Avenue Beach would be the site of the Triathlon. In addition, the lakefront and the Chicago skyline would provide cameramen gorgeous scenery to display in between shots of athletic competitions.

A less obvious advantage on the how Lake Michigan can be a security asset was presented in a column by David Heinzmann in the Chicago Tribune. Heinzmann writes that the lakefront and its parks are “an easy to patrol border”. Whether that is true or not is debatable, but the concept looks good on paper. However, Heinzmann goes on to cite a 2007 U.S Department of Homeland Security report that criticizes the lack of cooperation between the City of Chicago and Cook County law enforcement agencies. Seems to me that should be fixable, but then again, it is Illinois politics we are talking about here.

Details of “The Plan” for the Chicago Olympics are presented on the Chicago 2016 website. There is a section of the proposal that touts the use of green technology and green architecture. Chicago and Mayor Daley do have a good reputation in that area already, but when I read the section on Environmentalism and Rivers and Lakes, I found the following statement interesting. It says, “The people of Chicago are no strangers to the challenges of such natural elements. Chicago’s collective determination and ingenious engineering led to the re-routing of the Chicago River, which solved sanitation problems of the late 19th century.”

I have found my next topic. It’s time to spend a little time learning bit more about diversions in and out of the Great Lakes, including the famous one cited above, the reversal of the flow of the Chicago River and the creation of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which was completed around 1900. There are plenty of people who think that this engineering marvel is one of the major causes of changes in the Great Lakes ecosystem. The topic is worthy of some time and effort to understand why.

I began thinking about the Olympics, but ended up back at a water issue. I am easily diverted. But this train of thought should lead me back to the Great Lakes Compact, water conservation, and both a social and natural history of the region. Amazing how everything seems to be related.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Queen is Crying

Buffalo has been on my mind this weekend. The tragic accident near the Buffalo Airport is the reason. My heart goes out to those who suffered losses and to the whole city. According to one report, the Buffalo airport has never had a commercial airline go down. Not until last Thursday night. Given the city's reputation for snow and ice, that is quite an accomplishment, and a tragedy that the statistic is no longer valid.

I heard from my dear friend from Buffalo hours after the crash. I had just seen her in Florida and had forgotten that she was flying back home on Thursday. She arrrived only two hours before the crash, in ice and snow, she told me. Lucky, she said, we landed just fine. Fifty others weren't so lucky.

I remembered this morning that one of the nicknames given to Buffalo is the Queen City of the Lakes. Right now the Queen has tears in her eyes. My thoughts and prayers are with her.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Home Waters

I’m back to home waters. I love to travel and I love to come back home, although I have to admit that I could easily have spent a bit more time in Key West. It was only in the Keys that the sun penetrated these winter weary bones, so I could have stayed longer, plus Key West is funky and fun and I enjoyed it a lot.

I did get to walk on several beaches while we were away. In Sarasota, I wore my fleece jacket with a sweater when I walked at the beach on Siesta Key and watched the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. That’s the picture at the top. What a magnificent beach! I have never seen or felt sand like that anywhere. It’s as white as fresh snow and feels like talcum powder. I am told it is almost 100 % pure quartz. No wonder the Travel Channel ranked it the number one beach in America.

In Boca Raton, the weather was a little warmer, and I wore sandals and a light sweater when I walked. The sand there is coarser and darker and the days we were there, the surf was up. This picture was taken from the fifth floor apartment of our gracious hosts.

It was only on the beaches of Key West that I walked barefoot and wore a bathing suit. Even then, I didn’t immerse my whole body as the water was cold, but the walk on the beach was wonderful. It was windy there, too, and the sparkling water was dotted with sailboats and wind kiters skimming the surface of the water, painting a colorful picture for spectators on the beach. Sunset in Key West at Mallory Square is a nightly celebration and the evenings we were there were no exception. Click on these pictures to enlarge them. You need to get the whole effect, although in truth, photos just don't do it. You should experience it all for yourself.

I saw many different waterways while I was away. I saw the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. I saw Lake Myakka and Biscayne Bay. I saw channels, canals, creeks, and swamps. I saw water ranging in color from deep blue to turquoise, azure, emerald and colors I can’t begin to describe. And yes, the ocean is different from Lake Michigan. It smells different. It feels different, and the surf is much, much more powerful.

I came home to the gray waters of Lake Michigan, which look a little angry at still being cold. Today the lake hosted a few gulls and ducks, not nearly as enticing as the egrets, osprey, anhinga, herons, and pelicans I had seen in the last week. However, this water is my water and these shores are my home. Now that I am home, I will turn my attention back to the Great Lakes for I have much more to learn and explore.

Still, I would enjoy the opportunity to learn more about the water at the places we visited. At some point, I may need to take field trip back to the Keys. There is much more for me to do there, all in the name of research, of course.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Key Decision

I am still thinking about water, but the location of the water I am thinking about has changed. Tomorrow we leave for Gulf and ocean waters, which are a bit warmer than those near my house. Our trip starts on the west coast of Florida in Sarasota, after which will move on to the Fort Lauderdale area. Most of that part of the trip will be visiting friends and family, and I am looking forward to it, as well as to the warm weather.

Then we will drive the Overseas Highway to Key West. I have been to Florida but never to Key West. I read that Key West is the only one of the lower 48 states never to have had frost. Hurray.

In anticipation of our visit, I did a little research on Key West. For one thing, I learned “Key" is corrupted form of the Spanish word Cayo, meaning small island. Besides all the publicity about Key West being gay friendly, the home of Ernest Hemingway, John Audubon and Key Lime Pie (which I fully intend to have while I am there), it is a significant site. Its history includes Ponce de Leon, pirates and the Civil War. I may or may not learn more about the history of the island because my first priority will be to experience its charm, feel the sun on my face – and eat Key Lime Pie.

When we decided to go to Florida I looked at a book I own called The Most Scenic Drives in America. I was delighted to find the details of our drive along Route 1 in the book. The drive to Key West is Scenic Drive Number 120 (out of 120). My goal in life is to take all 120 rides, along with my other goal to see all 387 units in the National Park System. So far we have seen almost one third of the National Park sites, but taken less than a quarter of the drives. We still have a lot of ground to cover. By the way, seven of the drives in the book are around the Great Lakes.

My heart and home may be in the Great Lakes, but I am happy that for the next week by body will be in Florida.

Monday, February 2, 2009

In Defense of Buffalo

It’s February. Days are getting longer. This is a picture of the sky last night at 5:30 PM taken from our third floor balcony.

In the past few days, my reading journey in William Ashworth's book has taken me through Cleveland and along the eastern shores of Lake Erie. I went to summer camp along those shores. At Camp Lakeland, (the significance of the name never occurred to me when I was a kid) in the 1950’s we never swam in the lake. The camp had a swimming pool, and all we did at the lakeshore was to have one campfire a session on the beach.

The Ashworths drove into Buffalo from the south. That’s where my enjoyment of the journey ended. Ashworth’s description of my hometown was disheartening. It was dismal, but unfortunately somewhat true as what the author saw only the worst parts of the city. I realize that his interest is in the Great Lakes and therefore he was describing what he saw along Lake Erie and the Port of Buffalo, but to say what he did about Buffalo was upsetting to this native daughter. To quote him “I doubt that God will send anyone from Buffalo to Hell when they die. Why bother?” Not fair, Mr. Ashworth.

If you had driven even a little off the lakefront, you would have seen beautiful neighborhoods with tree lined streets. You would have City Hall, with its beautiful Art Deco style.

You would have seen the buildings of famous architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. You would have seen Delaware Park, designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted, and the world-class Albright-Knox Art Gallery. The wooden carvings of Wright and Olmsted you see here were displayed in the plaza in front of City Hall two summers ago. They were carved from 100 year old trees that were destroyed in a storm in October 2006.

Sure, Buffalo was where President McKinley was assassinated, but no one condemns the whole city of Washington DC because it’s where Lincoln was shot. Buffalo was a good place to grow up. A medium sized city, it had good schools, cultural events, and safe neighborhoods. Only someone from Buffalo can make fun of Buffalo, and only we can joke about the weather.

However, the loss of jobs and population is no joke. A bright young science teacher I know couldn’t find a job in Western New York and so moved to Florida where within a few years he was named Teacher of the Year. Buffalo lost someone who wanted to stay in Buffalo, and still enjoys going back to visit it - in winter.

It is a badge of honor for those of us from Buffalo to give our credentials. “I’m from Buffalo,” we’ll say. “I can handle weather.” In a similar vein, I heard yesterday that President Obama made a little fun of Washington when it closed schools because of bad weather. His daughters commented that not only would there have been school on such a day in Chicago, there would have been outdoor recess.

See, I told you before that Buffalo and Chicago are a lot alike. Now if Buffalo could just make its lake front as pretty as Chicago’s, it would be in great shape. Maybe we should send Mayor Daley east for a few years to straighten out the City of Buffalo. If anyone can do it, Daley can.