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Rust Belt to Blue Belt

Will $6 billion be enough for Great Lakes restoration?

June 29, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Officials will soon release a Great Lakes recovery plan that would clean up industrial sites like this one along the shore of Lake Muskegon by 2020.

MUSKEGON — Fourteen months after President George W. Bush recognized the Great Lakes as an “economic engine and recreational haven,” a special task force of federal, state, and local officials from across the region is about to introduce a draft plan to fund an historic environmental restoration of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem.

The ambitious plan, which will be officially released for public comment on July 7, 2005 in Duluth, Minn., introduces a decades-long strategy to reclaim heavily polluted waterways, rehabilitate degraded natural habitats, and promote a more sustainable pattern of economic growth in the Great Lakes region.

Among some forty recommendations contained in an early draft of the plan obtained by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service are calls for ending sewage and industrial waste dumping in Great Lakes waters by 2018; restoring and protecting one million acres of wetlands by 2015; and cleaning up by 2020 as many as 26 hot spots throughout the U.S. portion of the Great Lakes Basin that suffer from toxic contamination, restrictions on fish consumption, and other problems related to past development.

The draft plan to restore the Great Lakes, prepared over the last six months by a group known as the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, is generally viewed as a long-awaited environmental remediation initiative. But it also reflects a fresh understanding and consensus that healthy waterways are key to a successful regional economy in the 21st century. The question now emerging is whether the forthcoming general plan will lead to the specific goals, financial commitments, and proactive policies necessary to make a substantial difference in places like this shoreline city.

Selling a Lake
Muskegon, which sits along the eastern coast of Lake Michigan and basically surrounds Muskegon Lake, is a classic Rustbelt town. Hit hard by the unemployment and population loss that globalization and outsourcing bring to many industrial areas, civic leaders and residents now see redeveloping the waterfront as a strategy to reverse the downward trend. The goal is to make the lakefront more clean and accessible, raise the standard of living, attract talented workers, and gain a competitive edge in the knowledge-driven global economy.

“Muskegon Lake is what we’re selling,” said James Edmonson, president and CEO of Muskegon Area First, a group founded in 1999 by local business and government leaders to accelerate economic growth.

“The future of downtown Muskegon is focused on the waterfront,” he continued. “We’re going through a major transformation. The lakefront used to be 100 percent industry. Now we’re doing parks, bike paths, shops, restaurants, offices, condos, you name it. We’ve invested about $200 million in redevelopment so far. And we’ll probably invest a couple hundred million more.”

But while kids build sand castles on one shore of Muskegon Lake, a stockpile of black barrels loaded with mysterious liquid stands on another. Mercury and PCB contamination in the lake have led to restrictions on eating fish and other wildlife. Sewage spills and polluted runoff from nearby lawns and parking lots often close beaches to swimmers. These and other problems mean that, for the past 20 years, the federal government has officially classified the entire waterway as an Area of Concern, which means the inland lake fails to meet basic environmental health and safety standards.

Under the forthcoming restoration plan, which was prepared in response to President Bush’s May 2004 executive order calling for a Great Lakes Restoration Task Force, Muskegon Lake would be cleaned up and removed from that infamous list of impaired waterways by 2020.

Big Cleaning Bills
That local initiative, however, would be part of a much larger strategy that recognizes two facts: First, fresh water is becoming an increasingly valuable natural resource across the planet. And, second, a century of heavy fishing, chemical and sewage dumping, alien species invasions, and intense urban development — particularly in coastal and wetlands areas — has so altered the nature of the Great Lakes that some scientists believe the entire ecosystem is on the verge of irreversible change. So a thoughtful and well-funded plan to aggressively address these issues is seen as a critical step toward sustaining a globally unique ecological treasure and the economy that depends on it.

But the draft plan falls short of being truly comprehensive. It is based on a consensus process that involved industry leaders and environmental advocates. So, in an effort to facilitate agreement on funding priorities, the plan sidesteps solutions for some ongoing problems — such as mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants — that continue to steadily degrade the Great Lakes.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Dr. Alan Steinman, the director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute, who participated in writing the draft restoration plan. “There is some concern about whether the scope of the plan is broad enough, or whether it is ambitious enough. But you must start somewhere.”

Water resource experts also question whether federal and state government leaders have a realistic grasp of just how much it will actually cost to put the Great Lakes on the road to restoration. Legislation in Congress proposes to invest as much as $6 billion, but that seemingly generous sum shrinks quickly in the face of estimated repair bills from around the region. Estimates to restore Ruddiman Creek, for instance, one small tributary feeding Muskegon Lake, climb as high as $10 million. The projected cost of cleaning contaminated sediments from the Kalamazoo River which, like Muskegon Lake, is a designated Area of Concern, totals approximately $1 billion. And the repair bill for Detroit’s sewer system alone could exceed $25 billion.

“Muskegon Lake requires tens of millions of dollars in terms of restoration, if not more,” said Dr. Steinman, whose office sits beside the popular recreational lake. “Whether it’s hundreds of millions or more is just arm waving at this point.”

Three Questions
Similar expenses confront nearly every major metropolitan area across the eight states in the Great Lakes Basin. But a growing number of local leaders around the region are convinced that the investment in environmental restoration is vital to the region’s economic development strategy. Much like Muskegon, Gary plans to tear down old abandoned factories and open up as much as 75 percent of its Lake Michigan shoreline for public access. Detroit is tearing down cement factories and building a river walk. And Cleveland is finishing a 50-year strategic plan to transform its gritty lakefront into a hub of recreational, residential, and commercial activity.

Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office, said the Great Lakes region is evolving from the Rustbelt to the Blue Belt.

“The campaign to restore the Great Lakes represents a new way of thinking about our environment,” Mr. Buchsbaum said. “The Great Lakes are not just a nice place to go fishing. They are our economic lifeblood, and key to important industries such as manufacturing, farming, and tourism. But we need to invest in the lakes to ensure their health and ability to meet future economic and environmental needs.”

The National Wildlife Federation is leading a coalition of more than 50 environmental and citizen groups from across the region in a campaign to strengthen the restoration plan and secure the necessary funding. So far, the planning process is off to a promising start, Mr. Buchsbaum said.

“It comes down to three primary questions,” he said. “First, does the plan contain solid recommendations that put us on the path to Great Lakes restoration? Second, are the funding suggestions adequate? Big ideas with little money do us no good. And third, does the plan contain provisions that would actually hinder efforts to restore the Great Lakes? From what we can tell, this looks to be heading in the right direction.”

Andy Guy, who writes extensively about sustaining the Great Lakes in the global economy, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes Project and reports on Smart Growth from the Institute’s Grand Rapids office. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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