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Our view: More to be done for Great Lakes

Sure, Lake Superior is rising too fast after its levels were too low just a year ago. And just recently we had the occasional lost pickup truck pulled from the depths of the harbor here. But when it comes to the health of and Duluth’s stewardship of the Great Lakes and the waters that flow into them, it could be worse.

We could be Chicago. Or Green Bay. Or Ohio’s Carroll Township, west of Toledo.

An annual report released yesterday made that abundantly clear. The 44-year-old nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes — the oldest citizens group advocating for the world’s largest freshwater resource — used its yearly update to shine a light on hot spots of pollution around the Great Lakes and the efforts to turn the tide. Duluth, Superior and elsewhere along Lake Superior’s north and south shores can rejoice: We weren’t included among the lowlights.

The once notoriously polluted Chicago River, on the other hand, still faces a bevy of problems that threaten not only Lake Michigan but all of the Great Lakes. Those problems include continuing overflows of partially treated sewage, basement sewer backups during rainstorms, the runoff of contaminated sediments, water-quality warnings and invasive species, especially the Asian carp.

The report also featured the problem of nutrient-laden soil washing into waterways, including in Green Bay, Wis., the result being un-swimmable, murky, brown water and algae growth fed by phosphorus and other nutrients. “The algae is more than unsightly,” the report said, it has “grown to become a seasonal killer — sucking up oxygen in the water as it decomposes and (contributes) to growing, worsening dead zones in Green Bay in recent years.”

In Carroll Township, the report also pointed out, residents were ordered last fall to stop drinking water from Lake Erie because of high levels of toxins. This was after a massive blue-green algae bloom overtook large parts of Lake Erie in 2011 and 2013, forcing treatment plants to spend millions to treat algae in water intakes.

The news isn’t all bad, of course. Numerous pollution problems have been taken care of since attitudes about pollution and the environment started changing with the 1960s and 1970s. Many more are still being addressed, including all of those detailed above. And the federal government, beginning with a commitment from the George W. Bush administration, annually funds Great Lakes restoration.

In Duluth, sewer overflows that just a few years ago were costly, disgusting regular occurrences have been all but eliminated via sump-pump requirements and waterfront holding tanks.

And in the Twin Ports, cleanup of the St. Louis River continues after it was named an “imperiled waterway” and designated one of 43 highly contaminated “Areas of Concern” in 1987. In fact, “The St. Louis River has taken another big step closer to becoming healthier than it has been in a generation,” Area of Concern Coordinator Matt Steiger and spokesman Kevin Harter, both of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said in a statement yesterday. A plan to remove the first of nine impairments to the river’s health is ready for public review from Thursday through July 17 and will be the subject of a public open-house informational meeting on July 10 at 4:30 p.m. at the Superior Public Library.

“The (anticipated) removal of the first … impairment is a critical milestone,” Steiger and Harter said. “(It) is the latest in 30 years of significant environmental improvements on the St. Louis River.”

Improvements will continue as long as there’s a commitment to cleanup. And a commitment will be there as long as there are groups like the Alliance for the Great Lakes, state departments of natural resources, state and federal pollution control agencies and others.

Eventually, we all can hope, no one will be happy not to be a Chicago, Green Bay and Carroll Township.