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Great Lakes Lawmakers Unveil Restoration Bill

$20 billion federal act would fix lakes, boost region’s economy

April 6, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Proponents of Great Lakes restoration say their proposal would affect 20 percent of the planet’s fresh water and hasten the region’s transition to a modern, more prosperous economy.

WASHINGTON DC—Four months after Great Lakes leaders officially unveiled a $20 billion plan to revive the health of their region’s troubled waterways and distressed economy, a bipartisan coalition of Congressional lawmakers officially introduced legislation on Wednesday that would kick off the effort, which one U.S. senator said is “the biggest restoration project in the world.”

The proposed Great Lakes Collaboration Implementation Act would direct public investments to some of the nation’s bedrock cities—Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Gary, Ind., and other blue-collar midwestern urban centers.

Each helped lead the United States’ rise to global power in the 20th century, but most have since fallen on hard times. Scientists say that the environmental damage left in the wake of those cities’ shrunken manufacturing bases needs prompt repair, and development experts say essentially the same thing about the entire region’s economy.

The proposal would authorize billions of federal dollars to repair thousands of miles of sewer pipe, modernize hundreds of wastewater treatments plants, clean up scores of polluted waterways, and rehabilitate tens of thousands of acres of fish and wildlife habitat critical to the Great Lakes ecosystem. The bill also would phase out products made with mercury, a toxic metal now common to fish in the region, and better coordinate the nearly 200 individual government programs that manage Great Lakes waters.

Great Lakes Congressional leaders strongly support the ambitious proposal. So far, 28 lawmakers representing the region’s eight states have signed on as co-sponsors. Such unanimity reflects a growing regional awareness that the project could simultaneously enhance degraded waterways and speed up the region’s sluggish transition from heavy industry to high technology.

Convincing enough of the country that the project is a top national priority is the next challenge. Political observers say it means winning the votes of lawmakers from far-flung states and forcing restoration opponents to defend their positions from both an environmental and economic point of view. The fact that President George W. Bush, who first pushed local leaders to develop the restoration plan two years ago, now opposes the funding levels leaders are requesting makes the challenge even greater.

On the Same Page
Senators Mike DeWine, a Republican from Ohio, and Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, are the proposal’s lead sponsors in the U.S. Senate. Together with several of the region’s business, environmental, and local leaders, they began building the national case for a Great Lakes restoration project in a March 16 standing-room-only Senate committee hearing dedicated to the issue.

“The Great Lakes are a unique American treasure,” Senator Levin told the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works. “We must recognize that we are only their temporary stewards. If Congress does not act to keep pace with the needs of the lakes, the current problems will continue to build.”

The legislative proposal is based on a plan first drafted last July and released in final form in December 2005 by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, a group of mayors, governors, federal agencies, and, tribal leaders. President Bush established the group to advance restoration of the Great Lakes and promote sustainable development. The plan, titled A Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes, is based on more than a year of public and private work and is widely considered to be the most detailed and comprehensive blueprint for Great Lakes cleanup ever.

“For the first time, we are all on the same page in a long-term strategy that will require large-scale investment at all levels of governments,” said David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes Cities Initiative, who spoke at the hearing on behalf of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. “The cities represented on our board of directors each spend an annual average of more than $200 million for needs related to the Great Lakes, including drinking water, waste water infrastructure, storm water management, parks and open space, pollution prevention, and shoreline protection.”

Ecosystem and Economy
The proposal to federally fund the restoration plan comes as the Great Lakes region confronts enormous economic and environmental challenges. Scientists warn that ongoing introductions of invasive species, constant sewage dumping, extensive toxic contamination, and overdevelopment along coastal areas has put the nation’s single largest source of fresh surface water on the precipice of irreversible ecological collapse.

“The Great Lakes remain in a degraded state,” Senator DeWine said. “A 2005 report from a group of scientific experts says that historical threats are combining with new ones, and the result is that the lakes are at a tipping point. We need to act now.”

At the same time, more business leaders now say that a healthy Great Lakes ecosystem is important for the future of both the regional and national economy. Sixty percent of the nation’s manufacturing is located in the Great Lakes Basin, according to George Kuper, president of the Great Lakes Council of Industries, and the industry depends on stable access to robust supplies of clean, fresh water.

“Successful implementation of the Great Lakes restoration strategy is not just a regional issue,” Mr. Kuper said. “A strong Great Lakes economy is very important for the country as a whole.”

As manufacturing continues to evolve in the new, global marketplace, Great Lakes leaders now also see an immediate need to redefine their region’s identity and purpose in that marketplace. Reeling from heavy job losses, budgets deficits, and other dismal economic trends, state and local leaders are uniting and pursuing innovative strategies they hope will bring talented workers, high-tech companies, well-paying jobs, and a competitive edge in the knowledge economy to their region.

Many economic development experts contend that a clean environment and sustainable business practices are essential to economic success. That is why a growing number of Great Lakes communities, from major cities such as Gary to small towns like Muskegon, Mich., are implementing aggressive water conservation strategies and waterfront redevelopment plans. Federal restoration funds would boost those efforts considerably.

“It is clear our region needs infrastructure to support the growth of our population and our continuing industrial activity while protecting our treasured natural resources,” Mr. Kuper said. “We believe the restoration strategy will have a positive economic development impact on our region.”

“This is a high-level priority,” added Mr. Ullrich. “The lakes are incredibly important to the quality of life and economy in our cities.”

No National Urgency, Yet
But national leaders do not seem to share that sense of urgency. President Bush has recommended sharp cuts in Great Lakes funding in his proposed 2007 fiscal budget. And federal officials cite more pressing priorities, such as the Iraq war, hurricane relief, and health care.

“There is a limited federal role in the restoration of [the Great Lakes] and other watersheds,” said Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma. “Particularly in these times of limited federal resources, we must look at requests for these regional priorities in the context of their current funding and the funding available for similar problems throughout the nation.”

“We must also ensure the money is being spent wisely and efficiently,” Senator Inhofe continued. “While much progress has been made in just the past few years in terms of the oversight of the Great Lakes programs, much more is needed before we can add to the federal contribution of over one half a billion dollars per year.”

Representatives Vern Ehlers, a Republican from Michigan, and Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat from Illinois, are the lead sponsors of an identical version of the proposal in the House of Representatives. Among other things, the Act would:

  • Authorize $20 billion over five years in State Revolving Loan Funds to modernize wastewater infrastructure such as sewers and treatment plants.
  • Authorize $150 million annually for cleanup of contaminated sediments through the Great Lakes Legacy program.
  • Reauthorize the Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Act with $20 million in funding to protect critical natural habitats.
  • Reduce the threat of invasive species by, among other things, authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to step up the fight against the Asian carp.
  • Establish a special task force to coordinate and improve the management of Great Lakes programs.

“We need to examine the management of the biggest restoration project in the world,” said Senator George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, adding that it is important to determine “what we need to do in terms of new and existing programs at the international, federal, state, and local levels to get the biggest bang for our buck.”

Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Office, said that bang could be an impressive one.

“This is an investment we need to make,” Mr. Buchsbaum said. “And there will be a significant return on that investment. The longer we wait, the more expensive our challenge gets.”

Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes program. Last summer the Institute published Mr. Guy’s  in-depth report, Water Works: Growing Michigan’s Great Lakes Opportunities. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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