Cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative: A plan to sink American cities

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The Great Lakes contain 95 percent of America’s fresh surface water and supply drinking water to more than 30 million people in North America.  The environmental and ecological justification for improving and maintaining the Great Lakes is undeniable but one must look no further than my of hometown Buffalo, N.Y., to see how Great Lakes cleanup is breathing new life into the economy of once struggling cities.

First initiated in 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) is a multi-year, multi-agency effort to restore the Great Lakes by cleaning up pollution, promoting shoreline health, combating invasive species and protecting fish and wildlife. To date the program invested over $2.2 billion in Great Lakes restoration projects.  Coordinated in both the United States and Canada, GLRI sets the standard for interagency and international cooperation.

In 1987 the Buffalo River was designated one of thirty-one U.S. Areas of Concern under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a bi-national agreement with Canada.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other stakeholders have worked to improve and restore the health of the Buffalo River, which was once declared “ecologically dead.” Today the Buffalo River is thriving; canoes and kayaks dot the water, bike trails and waterfront boardwalks line the water’s edge.  Millions of people are now drawn to the water and waterfront, visited by very few people several short years ago. 

Over the last decade the federal government has invested $32.38 million in Great Lakes funding in and around the Buffalo River putting the site on track to be removed from the Areas of Concern list by 2019. That federal commitment has leveraged $95.6 million in additional investments including $34.6 million in state and local funding as well as $61 million from private entities. Honeywell Corporation has organized a private sector collaboration whereby companies that once contributed to legacy pollution of the water are now joining government agencies and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper in rebuilding our “blue economy.”

Water restoration efforts have led to more than $81.2 million in new private sector projects adjacent to the Buffalo River since 2013, helped contribute to more than $750 million in further investment nearby and interest continues to grow.  In the shadows of abandoned grain elevators, restaurants and residential developments are rising up along the shores. And all of this is changing the image of Buffalo and Western New York from a community that is old, industrial and declining to one that is new, exciting and thriving.  

A 2008 Brookings Institution report shows that every $1 invested in Great Lakes restoration results in a $2 return in the form of increased fishing, tourism and home values. The study said Buffalo alone would see economic gains between $600 million to $1.1 billion if the Great Lakes are restored. It was right. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is contributing to Buffalo’s renaissance and having a similar impact in cities across the rust belt.

The Great Lakes are one of America’s most overlooked and underappreciated national assets boasting a multi-billion boating, shipping, fishing, recreational and tourism economy. The Lakes support 1.5 million jobs and $62 billion in wages per year, which is why reports that White House plans to slash the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in the EPA budget by 97 percent is not only environmentally devastating but a shortsighted plan that will cost jobs and sink the economies of Great Lakes communities that have fought their way back.  

Rep. Brian Higgins is a member of the bipartisan Congressional Great Lakes Task Force.  His Western New York District, which includes the Cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, borders Lake Erie and Canada. 

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill. 


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