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Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News

Lake St. Clair is used by thousands of boaters as well as by large freighters. Although relatively small, Lake St. Clair's economic and ecological impact is considered by some to be greater than most of the other Great Lakes.

Lake St. Clair fans push to make it sixth Great Lake
They cite its key economic, ecological roles; selection would mean millions for cleanup

By Gene Schabath / The Detroit News

Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News

Sue Cunningham, left, of Roy's Boat Harbor in Harrison Township helps Gordon Baglaj fill his gas tanks before heading out to Lake St. Clair. Baglaj is one of thousands of boaters to use the lake for fishing and other recreational activities.

Small but great?

Does Lake St. Clair deserve to be named one of the Great Lakes? State your case here.


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HARRISON TOWNSHIP -- With 420 square miles of glistening blue waters, Lake St. Clair is certainly a swell lake. The haven for boaters may even be a magnificent lake.
But a Great Lake?
Undaunted by a failed 1998 effort to give the similarly sized Lake Champlain in Vermont that status, Macomb County environmentalists have launched a long-shot effort to put the diminutive Lake St. Clair in the same class as its five much larger neighbors.
The Great Lakes Commission could decide whether to seek the exclusive designation this month when it weighs a resolution to overlook size and bestow Great Lakes status on Lake St. Clair. While the 26-mile waterway may be one-seventh the size of the smallest of the five, Lake Ontario, backers want the panel to take other factors -- fishing and bio-diversity, for instance -- into consideration.
There's more at stake than semantics. Great Lakes status could bring federal funding to the perpetually polluted lake and help the shipping industry.
Fred Fox, for one, isn't laughing. "Lake St. Clair is tied together with them, so why not?" said the 46-year-old Clinton Township resident who regularly fishes and boats in the lake.
"I like the idea to get the funding for environmental issues. If making it a Great Lake is what has to be done to get the funds, then they should do it. It's a great idea."
Macomb Water Quality Board members Doug Martz and Bill Smith are leading the fight. They must first persuade the nine-member Great Lakes Commission to take up their cause during the panel's annual meeting Oct. 14-15 in Cleveland. The U.S. Congress and Ontario government also would have to sign on to the switch.
"Even though it is a small lake, its economic impact and its ecological impact is far more important than most of the other Great Lakes," said Michael J. Donahue, chairman of the commission.
Fans of Lake St. Clair trot out several superlatives when making their case.
It supplies more than one-third of all fish caught in Michigan waters and is widely regarded as one of the best fishing spots in all of North America, teeming with everything from smallmouth bass, perch, walleye and muskie.
The environmental benefits are abundant: Six million people -- 4.5 million Metro Detroiters and 1.5 million Canadians -- draw their water from the lake, Donahue said.
Lake St. Clair also has the largest concentration of boaters in Michigan, drawing thousands from Metro Detroit to its shallow waters. And bio-diversity? None of the five Great Lakes can touch Lake St. Clair, which has the most diverse collection of plants and animals in the system.
"It doesn't have the size or the volume that the five Great Lakes have," said John H. Hartig, a former scientist with the International Joint Commission and student of Lake St. Clair.
"But it has greatness with its bio-diversity -- the number of plants and animals it has -- and greatness in ecological habitat and greatness in fishing and recreational use and greatness in the economic benefit. That all adds up to a Great Lake."
Detractors, however, undoubtedly will display statistics of their own. Here's a few: At 31,700 square miles, Lake Superior is almost as big as Indiana. At 400 square miles, Lake St. Clair could fit into Wayne County with 200 square miles to spare.
Lake St. Clair's deepest spot is 21 feet. Lake Superior descends 1,332 feet.

Funds for cleanup
More important than prestige, becoming a Great Lake would qualify Lake St. Clair for millions of dollars in federal funds to fight pollution, save dwindling wetlands and control nuisance weeds such as milfoil, which gets tangled in boat propellers and kills fish by extracting oxygen from the water.
The Great Lakes Legacy Act makes it possible for $250 million to be appropriated by Congress to clean up the Great Lakes.
"The Great Lakes have a leg up on everyone else (for such funding) and that's why it is so important," Smith said.
Federal funds could be used to deal with problems in the lake that include polluted beach water, toxic contamination, erosion from urban and agricultural runoff and an onslaught of foreign aquatic species such as zebra mussels and the small, aggressive round gobey, which disrupt the lake's delicate ecosystem, Smith said.
The pollution challenge is so chronic that the Great Lakes Commission last year launched a two-year, $500,000 project to restore and protect Lake St. Clair under a federally financed management and restoration plan.
"We at the Great Lakes Commission have been informally calling Lake St. Clair the sixth Great Lake to call attention to its needs," Donahue said.
"One of our members would have to introduce it at the annual meeting, and I would be glad to talk about it. It's really not important to get the designation as it is to get the attention. Lake St. Clair might be a lot more important, economically and ecologically, than the five Great Lakes."

Remember Lake Champlain
Amid the debate and good intentions, however, lurks the specter of Lake Champlain.
The picturesque lake in northern New York and Vermont became a national joke in 1998 when Sen. Patrick Leahy, R-Vt., designated it the sixth Great Lake with an amendment he sneaked through an appropriations bill.
Leahy eventually relented, but some bitterness remains. Martz said he hopes his crusade -- which he said is deadly serious -- doesn't become ensnared in similar sniping and vitriol.
Martz finds comfort in a footnote to the flap: Lake Champlain got the next best thing to a Great Lakes designation. Champlain qualified to reap federal money under a $54 million appropriation to the National Sea Grant College program.
"There was a lot of political pressure ... a lot of talk on talk radio," said David Carle, Leahy's press secretary.
He said the compromise was that the one line naming Lake Champlain a Great Lake was deleted "and in exchange the Sea Grant program (was) extended to Lake Champlain."
Smith said he knows securing a Great Lakes designation from Congress is a daunting task, but he remains optimistic.
"Donahue is an authority figure (with) the clout to do it," said Smith, a retired Army officer who is on three major environmental committees that deal with Lake St. Clair.

You can reach Gene Schabath at (586) 468-3614 or [email protected]

h2o<---Not sure really, the funding seems good.

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