updated 7/8/2005 3:15:25 PM ET 2005-07-08T19:15:25

A partnership of federal, state and local officials proposed a long-term strategy Thursday for restoring the health of the ailing Great Lakes, an effort that would cost billions.

The plan makes dozens of recommendations in a bid to solve some of the lakes’ most pressing problems, such as the invasion of exotic species, habitat degradation and toxic pollution.

“The unique nature of these majestic lakes and their role in the cultural, economic and environmental well-being of our nation requires us to take bold action in their defense,” said Stephen Johnson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The partnership released the draft plan for a 60-day public comment period, after which it will craft a final version for release in December. Eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces border on the lakes, which contain 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.

President Bush last year ordered the EPA to assemble the partnership to coordinate Great Lakes cleanup efforts. The move followed a Government Accountability Office report describing existing programs devoted to restoring the lakes as disjointed and producing uncertain results.

Among the partnership’s recommendations were restoring wetlands, streamside buffers and other crucial habitat, and upgrading municipal sewers to stop the overflow of raw sewage into the lakes, which often prompts beach closings.

The partnership also advised enacting federal laws to prevent invasive species from entering the lakes, and reducing discharge of mercury, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides and other toxins into the lakes.

A coalition of environmentalist groups praised the plan, likening it to other federal initiatives that have taken a comprehensive approach to ecosystem restoration in places such as the Florida Everglades and Chesapeake Bay.

But group leaders said success would depend on whether Congress and state legislatures provide necessary funding and enact laws to carry out the proposals.

“If they do not, the Great Lakes as we know them and love them will continue to slowly die,” said Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

The environmental groups said the combined cost of big-ticket items in the blueprint would be about $20 billion, including $13.7 billion to modernize the sewer systems. Ben Grumbles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Water, declined to set an overall price tag, saying it would depend on how the final draft shapes up.

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