Earth Day Commandments for the Great Lakes

from Wildlife Promise

I was at a party recently when a friend began interrogating me about what I was doing to protect the Great Lakes from polluters, invasive species and other problems facing the largest source of surface freshwater on the planet.

“Well, I wrote a book about the Great Lakes,” I said. “And I work for the National Wildlife Federation, an organization that works hard as any to protect and restore the Great Lakes.”

He wasn’t satisfied. He wanted tangible examples.

“People need to wake up: The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of all the freshwater on the planet and we treat them like (crap),” he said. “Cities dump raw sewage into the lakes, industry pollutes and now we’ve got Asian carp at our doorstep. This is the Saudi Arabia of freshwater and we’re screwing it up.”

Initially, I was put off by the aggressive nature of his questions. But I quickly realized that what I perceived as hostility toward me was nothing more than one man’s frustration at our collective failure to treat the Great Lakes like the natural treasure they are.

Much has been done over the past three decades to reduce the amount of pollution discharged into the lakes, clean up toxic hot spots and restore fish and wildlife habitat. But serious problems remain.

In honor of Earth Day, I’ve taken a crack at compiling Earth Day Commandments for the Great Lakes. I offer these not to make light of the Bible or to be environmentally pious. (Lord knows I can do more to be a better steward of His creation).

There are many things that individuals, communities and businesses can and should do to protect and restore the lakes. Here are 10 to get you started:

  1. Conserve water: Residents of the Great Lakes basin rank among the world’s worst water wasters. The lakes contain a phenomenal amount of water but it is not an endless supply. Excessive consumption and global warming are already causing water shortages in some areas. Are you a water hog?
  2. Conserve energy: Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the Great Lakes. Water levels in some areas are at or near record lows, a change that threatens fish and wildlife and disrupts recreational boating and commercial shipping. You can combat climate change by conserving energy.
  3. Keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes: Ocean freighters and artificial canals have allowed numerous foreign species to invade the lakes, but anglers and household aquariums also contribute to the problem. Learn how to help.
  4. Fight Asian carp: These foreign fish could devastate the $7 billion Great Lakes fishery and the federal government isn’t doing enough, or working quickly enough, to head off this looming environmental disaster.
  5. Stop sewage overflows: Each year, cities discharge more than 40 billion gallons of untreated sewage mixed with storm water into the Great Lakes. Learn more about the problem and how to help solve it here.
  6. Take a child to the beach. The Digital Age has given an alarming number of American children a case of Nature Deficit Disorder. Sadly, many children who live within a few miles of the Great Lakes have never seen these wondrous bodies of water.  How can we expect children to care about lakes they’ve never seen?
  7. Help restore fish and wildlife habitat: A growing legion of individuals and groups are working to restore critical natural features. You can help.
  8. Keep Great Lakes beaches clean: Don’t litter and, whenever possible, pick up after slobs who do. Last year, volunteers removed 31,000 pounds of trash from Great Lakes beaches. That’s appalling.
  9. Fight sloppy, greedy oil companies: Get involved in efforts to prevent pipeline accidents and keep dangerous new oil pipelines from being built around and under the Great Lakes.
  10. Be a voice for the Great Lakes: We are blessed to live amid the world’s largest assemblage of surface freshwater resources and we have a responsibility to protect them.

As a native of California who moved to Michigan 30 years ago, I am often asked why I remain in a state that offers brutally long winters and endless economic challenges.

I answer that question with a question of my own: Have you experienced the Great Lakes?

Happy Earth Day!