The promise of summer picnics, canoe trips, and fishing draws 500,000 people a year to the sandy banks of the Boardman River, a blue-ribbon trout stream that feeds into Lake Michigan.
But the tourists and retirees creating the area's population surge are unknowingly exacting an environmental price. Heavy tourism scours topsoil and vegetation from river banks, and rain storms flush lawn fertilizers, orchard pesticides, and oily residues from roads and parking lots into the river that carries it all to the shallow waters of Grand Traverse Bay, a 32-mile finger jutting inland from Lake Michigan.
No longer plagued by large-scale industrial waste dumping, Great Lakes cities are struggling to control these broader, less defined contaminants known as non-point source pollution.
While the US Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada consider non-point source pollution one of the greatest threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem, officials say current federal laws don't address the problem. But instead of writing new laws or trying to untangle the priorities of the eight state and two provincial governments bordering the Lakes, the US and Canada are looking to small, innovative local programs to meet the challenge.
"The easy problems have been solved. The rest will have to be solved at a local level," says Kent Fuller, a senior adviser with the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office. "People will have to consider the chemicals they buy. They will have to deal with issues like wildlife habitat."
The Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Initiative, a nationally recognized model of community-based environmental restoration and protection, is typical of the new movement. Formed in 1990, the coalition of more than 120 local business owners, civic groups, and government agencies was determined to save the Boardman River.