I was five or six years old the first time I saw Lake Michigan. I was completely awestruck by the enormity of it, surrounded by towering dunes of golden sugar sand and the expanse of a seemingly endless crystal blue sea. That initial visit was the start of a lifelong relationship for this Michigan boy. The wonder of it all has hardly diminished in my mind these many years later. Stepping into that cold, clear water for the first time every year is a near spiritual experience. Stealing the simmer from the hottest of summer days and refreshing the soul, Lake Michigan is truly one of our nation's greatest treasures.
A few years later, I met her larger sister up in the land of Hiawatha, the lake the Ojibwe call Gitche Gumee--Lake Superior. This titanic and frosty beauty has a spirit all her own: dark, brooding royal blue and shrouded with mystery and power. Lakes Michigan and Superior, along with their sisters Erie, Huron, and Ontario, have their own unique characteristics. These are the daughters of glaciers that deeply scarred the Earth nearly 10,000 years ago and they literally define the region. My home state is one of the very few that is discernable from outer space due the lakes' embrace of our two peninsulas. I suspect that my affection for the Great Lakes is similar to how others feel about the Everglades, the Mississippi River, and other monumental bodies of freshwater.
Beyond my own sentimental attachment to the Great Lakes is the fact that this natural wonder is home to a diverse and delicate ecosystem. The Great Lakes biome is one of Earth's unique places. It is also essential for the economy and health of an enormous region that more than 50 million people call home. The Great Lakes basin contains over 20% of the world's supply of fresh surface water--approximately six quadrillion gallons, which is enough water to blanket the continents of North and South America under two feet of water.
This resource is of incalculable value to public health and to our economic sustainability, and yet we do not always seem to behave as if we understand the importance of this treasure. Sewage overflows, invasive species, water diversions, industrial contamination, agricultural runoff, oil pipelines of questionable integrity, and illicit dumping of garbage are just a few problems the lakes have faced in recent years. Many of you may recall the national news about blooms of toxin-producing algae that compromised the water supply systems of Toledo...