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Will $20 Billion Plan Trigger Cleanup or Brush-Off?

So far, Great Lakes restoration has many friends, few dollars

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

Andy Guy/MLUI

Twenty years ago, a $25 million public investment cleaned up Racine’s riverfront and leveraged almost $200 million in private investments that revived much of the downtown.

RACINE, Wis. — Economic leaders, scientists, and local officials agree: A multi-billion dollar proposal to restore the Great Lakes will help rehabilitate heavily degraded environments throughout the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem and provide a much needed boost to the region’s struggling economy. 

In interviews with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, officials in this Lake Michigan shoreline city compared the recently introduced Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps program of the 1930s. Like the CCC, which put hundreds of thousands of jobless people to work constructing basic infrastructure that eventually increased the nation’s prosperity, the proposed $20 billion Great Lakes cleanup could mobilize thousands of workers to repair sewers, eliminate toxic hot spots, and complete other conservation projects. It would also increase the region’s standard of living and ability to attract new industries and workers, according to some economic development experts.

“People want to be on the water,” said Mayor Gary Becker of Racine. “But we have a lot of junk on and in the water. So there’s a huge potential for cleanups and redevelopment and that will lead to new economic growth.”

Introduced on July 7, the restoration plan, which was drafted by a number of local, state, and federal officials, comes at a critical juncture in the history of the Great Lakes region. Scientists say the health of the region’s water resources is sagging under the combined weight of sewage and chemical dumping, climate change, alien invasive species, and intense development around critical wetlands, lakes, and rivers. Meanwhile, once potent economic engines such as Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois are struggling with high unemployment, falling household incomes, and rising poverty rates. Racine, located between Chicago and Milwaukee, has the highest jobless rate in Wisconsin.

Despite the growing awareness of the environmental and economic need for a Great Lakes restoration initiative, observers say there is no guarantee the latest plan will lead to substantial action. They point to numerous studies over the past several decades that have urged major investments in improving the Great Lakes. Most failed to generate the regional and national coalitions necessary to secure such big-ticket federal appropriations that, for example, launched restoration of the Florida Everglades. And while Great Lakes leaders say they believe that the current effort, launched by President George W. Bush, will be different, some signs indicate otherwise.

A series of meetings designed to build understanding of and support for the plan is underway. The meetings began yesterday in Gary, Ind. They continue in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Aug. 1; in Superior, Wis., on Aug. 4; Detroit, Mich., on Aug. 18; Cleveland, Ohio, on Aug. 23; and Buffalo, N.Y., on Aug 30. The meetings are sponsored by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, a coalition of governors, mayors, U.S. senators and representatives who, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, drafted the restoration strategy.

“This requires a long-term process of building support,” said Jon Brandt, a spokesman for Congressman Vern Ehlers, a Republican from west Michigan. “A big part of our job right now is to get other members around the Great Lakes region to buy into and support the plan. Then it becomes a sales job to the rest of the country.”

Spending Plans
Environmentalists say the current proposal is a practical first step toward addressing the numerous ecological threats confronting the lakes. It dedicates $13.7 billion to improve municipal sewer systems, $2 billion to clean up toxic pollution, $550 million to conserve hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands. Economists who like the plan add that it is essential to the region’s future prosperity. They think the restoration could help replace the Midwest’s lingering rustbelt image with a new reputation as a place with a peerless source of clean, fresh water and a high quality of life that attracts new businesses and the talented workers they covet.

That is why, like numerous local leaders across the Great Lakes Basin, Mayor Becker strongly supports the proposal. He hopes to attract new funds for rehabilitating several underused and abandoned industrial sites fronting Lake Michigan and the Root River, which flows through downtown Racine. His goals include improving water quality, creating a livelier city center with waterfront housing, restaurants, and commercial space, and accelerating the city’s transformation from a falling star of the Industrial Era into a rising leader in the Digital Age.

In the mid 1980’s, Racine spent $25 million to construct a new marina and Festival Park and provide more access to the waterfront. That investment eventually leveraged several projects — a $16 million condominium tower, a $78 million retail complex, and a new $100 million headquarters for Case Worldwide — that have helped to revitalize the downtown. Mayor Becker sees the Great Lakes proposal as a way to maintain that momentum.

“Any added revenue streams that could help us clean up these old, ugly properties littering our waterfronts would have a tremendous benefit for our waters and our economy,” he said.

But whether real dollars will show up is a subject of lively debate. While the Bush administration helped launch the study, some water policy experts say that the White House supports policies that would weaken clean water laws in ways that would counteract the proposed restoration’s efforts. Others say the federal Environmental Protection Agency has been slow to schedule public hearings, release information about the plan, and promote it in the media. And there appears to be little political unity among the region’s elected representatives about how to structure, manage, and fund the program. U.S. lawmakers have introduced two legislative proposals in Congress, one sponsored by Republicans, the other by Democrats.

Congressman Bart Stupak, a Democrat from northern Michigan, said he is confident that he can sell the need for Great Lakes restoration in Washington, D.C., even as his region loses political strength. But he has yet to see an indication that the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers are serious about advancing a Great Lakes restoration campaign.

“This [restoration plan] is nothing more than a study of studies,” Representative Stupak said. “We know the problems. What I’m looking for is a serious financial commitment from the administration to start moving forward.”

In a phone interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Rep. Stupak called for an immediate $1 billion appropriation to begin implementing the plan. That, he said, would start funneling money to Great Lakes communities that need to address their water resource issues.

Money Talks
Dr. Donald Scavia, director of the Michigan Sea Grant Program and an associate professor at the University of Michigan, said there is no shortage of trouble spots to choose from.

“If you look at the Great Lakes from the shore they generally appear to be healthy,” Dr. Scavia said. “But, in the context of how much they’ve changed in the past 50 years, they are a very stressed ecosystem. Pollution. Invasive species. Wetland loss. Constant sewage spills. Over-fishing and artificial stocking. Climate change. It all adds up to huge water bodies that are under tremendous stress.”

For example, according to various local, state, and federal sources:

  • Ohio has lost some 90 percent of its wetlands to development, while discharges of raw human sewage into local waterways led to 413 swimming advisories at Lake Erie beaches in 2003, according to the Ohio Environmental Council. Estimates to repair sewers in the City of Toledo alone approach $750 million.
  • A massive waterborne outbreak of the parasite cryptosporidium flowed undetected through the Milwaukee water supply system in 1993, killing 100 residents and sickening approximately 400,000 others. The incident underlines the need for modern water treatment systems across the basin, because heavy rain runoff likely played a significant role carrying the parasite into the water from a variety of sources.
  • Minnesota’s St. Louis River, which empties into Duluth Harbor, is an EPA-designated Area of Concern, due to its deformed fish, fish consumption advisories, toxic pollution, and beach closings. Costs to remediate the river, Lake Superior’s largest tributary, hover around $130 million, according to the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.
  • Michigan has 14 Areas of Concern, many in struggling urban areas such as Detroit and Muskegon, and the state has lost some six million acres of wetland.

And while such findings alarm many scientists and environmentalists, they also resonate with many economists from the region who understand the central role the Great Lakes play in the Midwest’s evolving economy.

“It’s easy to look at the more immediate and tangible returns of an investment in Great Lakes restoration,” said William Testa, vice president and director of regional programs at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “But it’s also important to consider the future returns. The economy and how we live is changing. Demand for scenic beauty and a clean environment is rising. And, if we can find a way to cost effectively restore the Great Lakes, we can really make this a place where people want to live and work. That would put the region on a new path for growth that’s fit for the 21st century.”

“Most of what needs to be done is not rocket science,” Dr. Scavia added. “We’ve identified the problems. Developed solutions. Now we need to put some significant funding behind the effort. Otherwise this effort becomes just another report.”

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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