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Plan to Restore Great Lakes Enters Troubled Waters Phase

White House balks at cost

November 18, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


White House officials advised George W. Bush not to fund an ambitious plan to restore the Great Lakes region’s environment, economy, and quality of life.

John Austin, the vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education who holds degrees from Harvard's School of Government and the prestigious Swarthmore College, is watching the campaign to restore the health of the Great Lakes unfold in 3-D.

The first dimension of an aggressive Great Lakes cleanup strategy, Mr. Austin explained in a recent phone call, is cleaning up the pollution that makes harbors unsafe for swimming and polishing the Rust Belt’s image. That image should be one of natural splendor, not empty factories and blighted beaches.   

The second dimension of a major public investment in the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem is actively maintaining and securing basic water resources and infrastructure. As affordable clean, fresh water becomes increasingly scarce worldwide, he said, we must invest in clean water now so that bedrock industries like agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing will have an adequate supply in the future.

But the Midwest economy is moving away from the factory-based wealth of the 20th century. So the third dimension of a Great Lakes public works initiative, Mr. Anderson continued, is about looking to the future, nurturing new knowledge and skills in people who need jobs, and developing a culture of innovation to pursue 21st century prosperity.

A bold Great Lakes restoration strategy, then, is more than a one-dimensional government program to clean up the environment. At stake is the transition from the region’s rusting industrial economy to the cutting-edge knowledge economy. A comprehensive restoration program represents an opportunity for the entire region to simultaneously develop a modern workforce, protect public health, steward natural resources, and stimulate a sluggish economy.  

A Comprehensive Great Lakes Restoration Plan
A 594-page draft of just such a plan to restore the Great Lakes, which government leaders will unveil in Chicago on December 12, outlines highly specific goals, widely accepted strategies to achieve them, and targeted funding recommendations to get the job done.

Among other objectives, the plan aims to end sewage and industrial waste dumping in the Great Lakes, preserve one million acres of wetland, and clean up some 26 different areas with extreme toxic contamination. It also is intended to put hundreds of thousands of laborers to work fixing sewers and rehabilitating coastal areas; speed urban revitalization; and inspire the discovery of new solutions to pressing water problems. These technologies and skills are increasingly in demand and exportable worldwide: key to competing in the global economy.

The final plan, prepared after more than a year of work at the urging of President George W. Bush, is the cornerstone for a rebuilt Midwestern economy and environment. But it is uncertain whether the federal government intends to fully finance the program. 

In October, senior White House officials advised President Bush not to boost federal funding to restore the waters of the Great Lakes. That took Midwest leaders by surprise because President Bush personally initiated the planning effort with a May 2004 executive order. Business leaders, environmentalists, local elected leaders, and government officials from across the region rallied around the president’s initiative. They gathered extensive public input to develop the most detailed and comprehensive proposal for a Great Lakes cleanup ever. The total cost approaches $20 billion, with major funding expected from federal, state, and local sources. 

But the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, the group of cabinet heads and agency officials established by presidential order to coordinate the effort, says the plan’s price tag is too expensive. Government should first “focus on prioritizing and coordinating” current Great Lakes funding, the task force wrote in an October 28 report to the president. “The federal government alone expects to provide approximately $5 billion over the next 10 years to Great Lakes water quality activities.”

President’s Task Force Shortchanges Great Lakes
The interagency report sparked an immediate, intense, and unified reaction from Great Lakes leaders who said $5 billion is not enough to finance the immense needs of the Great Lakes region. The cost of fixing Detroit’s sewer system alone is estimated at over $26 billion. And completely repairing similar infrastructure in Cleveland, Milwaukee, and numerous other cities is essential to restoring the Great Lakes.

“We are deeply disappointed in the report suggesting that restoration be undertaken within current spending levels,” Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley wrote in a joint statement to President Bush on November 1, 2005.

“We share the goal of accomplishing greater results with existing [financial] resources. However, state and local spending far exceed federal investment in the Great Lakes. Further, the task force report fails to recognize that the strategy reflects input from our nation’s leading experts on the Great Lakes and is broadly supported throughout the region.”

Indeed, Great Lakes citizens turned out in droves this past summer to express support for the draft restoration strategy. And 41 members of the Great Lakes Congressional delegation sent a separate letter calling for more federal investment on Nov. 4. The regional coalition of Republicans and Democrats said that federal officials never indicated the restoration planning process was required to stay within current spending projections.

“The problems impacting the Great Lakes will only get worse over time. And the implementation of solutions will only become more expensive. We cannot wait to start restoring the Great Lakes to a healthy condition,” the U.S. Senators and Representatives wrote.

The Michigan Senate followed suit, hurrying to pass a Nov. 10 resolution supporting Great Lakes restoration.

“Despite Michigan’s effort,” the bipartisan resolution states, “the Great Lakes are ailing from a multitude of stressors, including aquatic invasive species, toxic contamination, inadequately treated sewage discharges, pollution, and coastal habitat loss. Combined, these stressors will have long-lasting effects on the Great Lakes, Michigan’s economy, and our way of life.”

Regional leaders are urging the president to personally intervene and actively support increased federal funding for the restoration plan before its December release. That will determine how quickly and extensively the plan is implemented.

“It is our hope that we can stand together before the American people to release our consensus action plan,” the governors and mayors wrote.

Leaders Work to Attract Knowledge Economy Jobs
The collective sense of urgency grows as the region’s economy continues to sputter. In the wake of high unemployment, corporate bankruptcies, and public budget deficits, Great Lakes leaders have made attracting knowledge economy jobs the centerpiece of their recovery plans.

In his 2005 State of the State address, Ohio Gov. Taft highlighted the profitable prospect of advancing stem cell research. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, is focused on growing the homeland security industry. Inventing alternative fuel technologies was the focus of remarks made by Wisconsin Gov. Doyle and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, both Democrats, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and New York Gov. George Pataki, both Republicans.

What is underway is a remarkable transition from the declining industrial economy to the emerging knowledge economy. The region already hosts a major portion of the world’s top research universities, according to recent research from the University of Michigan. The Great Lakes are another globally unique asset. And, for those like John Austin on the cutting edge of the transformation, a fully funded restoration strategy goes beyond the environmental dimension.

“We have this unique-in-the-world freshwater asset that enables us to attract and accommodate sustainable growth in a world where people increasingly fight over the resource,” Mr. Austin said. “So protecting Great Lakes water and keeping it clean should be job one.”

“But there’s also a new economy piece to this issue. Those places that raise and attract talented workers will thrive in the global knowledge market. Those that don’t, won’t. And when the top talent can choose to live and work anywhere, our waters provide a quality of life that no where else in the world can match. That presents a tremendous opportunity to attract the cutting edge thinkers, generate the new ideas, and commercialize the latest technologies.”

Andy Guy, who writes extensively about the Great Lakes and 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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