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Banking on Shoreline Restoration

Ohio group seeks green solutions to Great Lakes erosion

January 3, 2007 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Concrete slabs protect this stretch of the Detroit River, but such techniques often harm a shoreline’s ecology and economic attractiveness.

CLEVELAND—Jim White has a billion-dollar idea to help transform the outdated economies of Cleveland, the state of Ohio, and perhaps the entire greater Great Lakes region.

Mr. White’s idea has nothing to do with ethanol, the next generation of renewable energy, major breakthroughs in biotech or homeland security, or any of the trendy new growth sectors outlined in most of the economic rescue plans being discussed in Ohio, Michigan, or Wisconsin.

Instead, Mr. White is thinking about building and installing new, environmentally smart, anti-erosion bulkheads along many miles of Great Lakes waterways and shoreline—an activity that could play a major role in the $20 billion Great Lakes restoration project that leaders from across the Upper Midwest proposed to the federal government 13 months ago.

"It's easily a billion dollar marketplace just in the Great Lakes," Mr. White said of the bulkhead proposal in a recent interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. "If you add the numbers of miles of failing steel shoreline that have to be replaced in the region's ship channels—the Milwaukee River, the Detroit River, the Maumee—river after river has a hardened edge shoreline and all of them suffer from the same related problems."

The concrete and steel barriers that have stabilized waterfronts in harbors and along rivers throughout the Great Lakes over the past two centuries gave rise to a multi-billion shipping industry, established employment opportunities for tens of thousands of workers, and transformed cities like Cleveland into global transportation hubs. But the structures also degraded water quality and fish habitat. Today, they line waterfronts that are so unsightly that they diminish, rather than boost, the region's ability to attract top, new, knowledge-economy companies and workers to the region.

Now, as the old, gray, steel walls crumble and local leaders assess their sizeable replacement costs, Mr. White and a team of fellow, entrepreneurial Clevelanders are using a modest federal grant to conceptualize and design what they call “green bulkheads”: a new kind of high-performance retaining wall that would simultaneously maintain river commerce, protect and improve those working waterways’ ecosystems, and boost the region’s competitiveness in the emerging 21st-century economy.

"There currently are no products that do that," said Mr. White, who is executive director of the Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan, and a member of the Cuyahoga Lake Erie Environmental Restoration Technology Enterprise Center, or CLEERTEC, the civic and business group that is pushing the idea, and others like it. "So inventing a new product that can be built, sold, and installed to replace the aging and failing old sheet steel system creates businesses and jobs."

A Smart Investment
Proponents of restoring the Great Lakes say that Mr. White's original idea, its impressive fiscal implications, and other inventions his group is working on further strengthen the case for federal sponsorship of the $20 billion Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes. Officials from across the Great Lakes Basin formally proposed the program to Congress in December 2005. The idea has attracted strong bipartisan consensus from within the region, but is struggling to gain a critical mass of political support in Washington because it is viewed there almost solely as a costly environmental cleanup effort.

Most agree the effort would spur dramatic and far-reaching environmental benefits. But evidence abounds that the very large public works project could also help jumpstart a Midwestern mega-economy that is essential to the overall strength and performance of the United States. Indeed, a growing number of economists, legislators, mayors, and other civic leaders now contend that the multi-billion dollar restoration strategy is a critical regional investment that will reap huge national returns.

Engineers estimate the proposed sewer repairs alone will generate tens of thousands of construction, consulting, and support jobs across the region. Economists at the University of Illinois have released studies projecting that cleaning up heavily polluted waterways will add hundreds of millions of dollars in property value to the tax rolls of Rust Belt cities like Buffalo, N.Y., and Waukegan, Wis. And now creative thinkers like Mr. White are inventing brand-new, legitimate, billion-dollar enterprises that would further increase the project’s environmental and economic efficacy.

That is why John Austin, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based non-profit policy organization that studies the Great Lakes region’s economy, asserts that the restoration project’s benefits economic fallout would go far beyond that of typical “public works.”

"The economic benefits of cleaning the Great Lakes, and investing the $20 billion, are much more than a bunch of multiplier jobs for people fixing sewers," Mr. Austin said. "It's the benefit of, and the wealth created by, the new residential and commercial development along the waterfronts. It's the tourism and recreation dollars. It's the premium someone will pay to live in a place where you can throw a kayak on top of the hybrid SUV and go to a beautiful, clean lake or river."

"We don’t yet know the full dollar value of clean, green, Great Lakes," Mr. Austin added. "But it's going to be a lot more than $20 billion. It's going to be tremendous."

In fact, Mr. White and a growing number of people believe that restoration spending can help jumpstart an important 21st-century growth sector—environmental improvement. Just as passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963 prompted entrepreneurial industrialists to inaugurate the smokestack-cleaning business with innovative filters, ion scrubbers, and other new products, he's convinced that a major public works initiative to clean up the Great Lakes will spin off a similarly profitable industry.

Mr. White thinks his idea can lead to workforce development, product manufacturing, and the formation of a globally significant niche market geared entirely towards improving degraded water resources. And he wants to see Cleveland lead the way.

That is why Mr. White and an enterprising group of civic and business leaders recently organized CLEERTEC. The initiative intends to generate jobs and launch new businesses focused on solving the numerous ecological challenges confronting the Great Lakes.

While the effort is still in its early stages, Mr. White suggested CLEERTEC might focus on developing new ways to remove contaminated sediments from river beds and lake bottoms, or leveraging Cleveland's medical heritage, partnering with researchers at area biotech labs, and exploring ways to combat invasive species with genetics.

“Many of the problems articulated in the [restoration strategy] are highly susceptible to new technologies,” Mr. White said. “We're putting together a team of people to talk about that, dream up the new products, test them, and compile the business plans."

The green bulkhead proposal is one of the group’s first successes; CLEERTEC recently received approximately $1.8 million in federal funding to develop performance standards for the proposed new system; construct and install a prototype; and evaluate the new technology.

"It's likely the government eventually is going to spend a ton of money on this environmental restoration stuff," he added. "And we want to be one of the first new guys in the marketplace. We want Cleveland to emerge as a center for environmental restoration technology."

Journalist Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Water Works project and writes about Smart Growth issues from Grand Rapids. He is also managing editor at Rapid Growth Media and maintains a blog at http://greatlakesguy.blogspot.com/. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

Read Andy’s special Institute report, Water Works: Growing Michigan’s Great Lakes Opportunities, here.
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