The Delicate Balance of Restoring & Protecting Our Environment
“We aspire to be a region that supports stewardship of our unique natural environment helping to assure the health and well-being of current and future generations”
--from the One Region 2012 Quality of Life Indicators Report
Our location on the sandy southern shore of Lake Michigan makes Northwest Indiana an unparalleled landscape in the state, the country and even the world.
The second largest Great Lake by volume and the third largest by surface volume, Lake Michigan is the sixth largest fresh water lake in the world. Bordered by Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, it is the only Great Lake totally within the continental US.
Over time, as people and industry made their way across the region, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore claimed 15,000 acres including 15 miles of beach access for preservation while the Indiana Dunes State Park held on to another 2,182 acres with 3 miles of shoreline beaches. More than 2 million people enjoy the beautiful scenery, ecological diversity and ample recreational opportunities the lakefront provides annually.
Even so, heavy industry and residential development took their toll on the environment, and the sustainability of the region’s natural resources - air, water and land – became a priority.
Nationally, the Clean Air and Water Acts, which were first enacted over 40 years ago, have greatly reduced toxic air pollutants and other hazards including lead and mercury in our lakes and streams. However the US Environmental Protection Agency’s latest updates have once again renewed the debate between those who seek to protect our natural resources and public health with those who seek to strengthen our economy and create jobs – a struggle that has especially defined our region.
But, thanks to the combined efforts and ongoing commitment of business, industry, residents and government, Northwest Indiana has recently made notable strides toward environmental improvement, according to Kay Nelson, Environmental Affairs Director for the Northwest Indiana Forum.
“Technological innovations are allowing more and more industries to switch to safer and more efficient alternatives that keep their businesses strong and competitive,” she said. “The air quality in Northwest Indiana is excellent. We now fall below the state standards on 10 pollutants, and we are the only area in the state to be under the approved levels for sulfur dioxide. The region is also below standards on ozone levels, but thanks to our proximity to Chicago the EPA has us in an area that includes a location in Illinois, which failed, meaning the entire area including Lake and Porter counties fails. It’s very, very frustrating.”
However, our strategic location at the Crossroads of America in close proximity to Chicago is also a major benefit to Northwest Indiana. We are directly connected to the world via major roadways, airports and waterways.
Linked to the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS), more than 6 million tons of cargo travels in and out of the Burns Harbor Port of Indiana, making it the Great Lakes busiest international port. All total, shipping accounts for approximately $7.9 billion annually and brings 48,332 jobs to Indiana, according to data from Indiana’s First Congressional District.
The CAWS is a 130-mile network of natural and constructed rivers, canals, locks and other structures in Chicago and Northwest Indiana. First started in the 1890s, the CAWS system diverts water from Lake Michigan to create a connection with the Mississippi River watershed.
Currently, the CAWS is facing challenges from a group of Great Lakes states led by Michigan which sued the Army Corps of Engineers and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago to permanently close the locks in order to halt the coming invasion of Asian carp. While a federal judge denied all of Michigan’s claims in December, they are appealing the ruling that the court cannot order any lock closure, which would require an act of Congress.
That’s because the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces have been working together to protect the Great Lakes since 1983, and in 2008 President Bush signed a joint resolution of Congress endorsing the Great Lakes Compact, which recognizes that the lakes are vulnerable to many challenges including the supply of water to sprawling regions, climate change, pollution, invasive species and lower lake levels.
“My journey with the fish began in December of 2009 when Michigan called for the immediate closure of the CAWS,” Nelson said. “In the beginning, I was the lone ranger from Indiana, and it’s been a long, arduous journey over the last three years. Researchers all over the country are committed to finding a permanent and sustainable solution to the Asian carp and other aquatic nuisance species. Efforts to stop the Asian carp must be constructive and their consequences clearly documented before any action takes place.”
As the lead coordination agency and funding authority, the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee has contributing members from 22 federal, state and local groups, including the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“There are a number of impacts beyond the control of aquatic invasive species that need to considered when looking at the separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds,” Nelson added. “Beyond the transportation of goods, which will significantly increase air pollution if diverted from water to land, closing the CAWS will greatly affect water quality - adding to the waste stream - and flood management – undoing the achievements of the $250 million Little Cal project. These are all of great concern to Northwest Indiana.”
In another step toward demonstrating our true environmental stewardship, Indiana is the only Great Lakes state to apply the new voluntary conservation and efficiency measures statewide - as outlined by the federal government as part of the Great Lakes Compact, according to Nelson.
“That makes us unique,” she said. “Our business and industry leaders along with elected officials are very engaged when it comes to the environment, and that’s definitely important for Northwest Indiana as cooperation and compromise will be essential for us to protect what we value and continue to progress.”