Some lakes are born Great, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
Such is the fate of Lake Champlain, a 110-mile long body of fresh water between the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York and the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Lake Champlain was created by the same Pleistocene ice age ending 10,000 years ago that carved out the five Great Lakes. But at one-fifteenth the size of Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes, Champlain missed out on the official designation as a Great Lake.
And that means it misses out on federal research money that goes to colleges in states that abut the Great Lakes and the oceans.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy thought this was unfair and wanted colleges in his state to get some of the lucre. Besides, Leahy says, Vermonters have always thought of Champlain as the sixth Great Lake.
No one else has. But that didn’t stop Leahy from slipping a seven-word sentence into a lengthy, bureaucratic-laden re-authorization bill and essentially rewriting the topography of North America.
“The term ‘Great Lakes’ includes Lake Champlain,” reads the sentence, a subsection of a bill that authorizes $290 million for so-called Sea Grant research programs for the next five years.
The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent last year. It then passed the House by a vote of 422-3. It was changed slightly and repassed, by voice vote, the House on Feb. 11 and the Senate on Feb. 12. President Clinton signed the bill Friday.
The rest is geography.
“Federal funding is the main benefit of this designation,” Leahy said in a news release. “But it also gives us another foot in the water for acceptance of the lake alongside its sisters as a Great Lake.”
Not so fast, say some of the members of Congress who represent the traditional Great Lakes states. Even though they voted for the bill, twice, they now realize that Leahy’s maneuver will cut into their share of the Federal pie and they are trying to stop this tide of change. At the moment, 29 colleges and research centers share about $56 million in marine research funds.
The discovery last week that Leahy was fiddling with toponymy unleashed a torrent of local pride from his colleagues. Representative Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, quickly introduced a bill specifically to exclude Lake Champlain from the lofty status of a Great Lake.
“I have a problem with stealing funds that have been traditionally reserved for the Great Lakes,” Upton said in an interview.
He said that adding Champlain to the list of Great Lakes was an insult.
“It’s a pencil line on a map,” he sneered, saying that in no way did Champlain measure up to Greatness. “This really is a money grab.”
Ohio Sen. John Glenn, a usually collegial Democrat from the state that abuts Lake Erie, said: “With all due respect to my good friend Senator Leahy, I know the Great Lakes. I’ve traveled the Great Lakes. And Lake Champlain is not one of the Great Lakes.”
Pat Healy, a cartographer for Rand McNally, was equally dismissive.
“It smells like pork,” Healy said of the legislation.
He said Rand McNally had no intention of changing any of its maps.
“That official designation won’t go very far or last very long,” he asserted.
Roger Payne, executive secretary of the United States Board on Geographic Names, said the board would have to rule as to whether the legislation intended to change the “extent of the feature known as the Great Lakes” or whether it was “incidental language” for the purposes of specific legislation.
White House spokesman Barry Toiv said the administration interpreted the designation as applying only to the Sea Grant program, just as other legislation had lumped other bodies of water in with the Great Lakes for their own purposes.
“It’s our view that this does not literally alter the Great Lakes as we’ve always known them,” he said.