Stung by the impact of zebra mussels, a European native accidentally brought to the Great Lakes in ship ballast water during the 1980s, the Great Lakes states didn't want to wait for federal research money to find ways ships could be modified to stop future aquatic invasions.
Instead, the governors used money from the Great Lakes Protection Fund, created in 1989 as the nation's first multistate environmental endowment.
To jump-start research on the issue, the governors of the Great Lakes states funded a $1 million experiment that will filter water going into a ship's ballast tank to see if it keeps out stowaway species. While the recently passed National Invasive Species Act of 1996 will fund similar research, that money won't be available for at least another year.
"This problem afflicts coastal nations worldwide, making this grant a worthy gift from the Great Lakes states to the world, in the hope of solving the ballast water problem," said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, which oversees the fund.
The endowment was created with money contributed by the states. A formula based on the amount of water withdrawn from the lakes by each state was used to determine how much each would pay into the fund. Based on that, the required contributions ranged from a low of $1.5 million for Pennsylvania, to a high of $25 million for Michigan.
Ultimately, the endowment is to reach $97 million; so far, $76.8 million has been paid by the states. It is the nation's first multistate environmental endowment.
"What they wanted to do was to come up with a funding mechanism to deal with problem-solving for the Great Lakes that didn't run through Congress," said Russell Van Herik, the fund's executive director. "In other words, they didn't want to have to go beg for more appropriations every year."
Twice a year, the governors meet to select research, demonstration and educational projects to be financed with interest earned by investing the endowed money. Since 1990, it has funded projects totaling about $25 million, with the amount gradually increasing each year.
One third of the fund's net earnings goes back to member states, in proportion to their respective contributions, to support Great Lakes projects. The rest is given to projects affecting the whole region.
It funds projects that explore the health impacts of eating Great Lakes fish, pollution prevention demonstration projects, techniques for measuring nutrient and pesticide reductions on farms, pilot urban nonpoint source pollution prevention efforts, educational materials, and other actions related to the Great Lakes cleanup.
In the past, it has supported research ranging from an effort by The Nature Conservancy to identify areas of significant biological diversity in the basin, to a program that monitors the health of mink populations, which consume large amounts of fish and may be exposed to toxic chemicals.
Research on exotic species has been of particular interest, largely because of the impact of the rapidly reproducing zebra mussel, which has spread through the Great Lakes and surrounding watersheds, threatening native fish populations and costing industry, power plants and municipalities hundreds of millions of dollars as the bivalves clog their water intakes.
Only one state, Indiana, has failed to contribute any of the $16 million it has committed to. "They agreed to join right at the beginning, but then, for various domestic reasons, it just hasn't happened," Van Herik said. Still, he added, "I think about everyone considers it inevitable they will, when the stars line up."