Let’s end the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — when it’s finished

Associated Press/Paul Sancya
In this Sept. 15, 2017, file photo, algae floats in the water at the Maumee Bay State Park marina in Lake Erie in Oregon, Ohio. The toxic algae fouls drinking water and closes beaches.

For more than 100 years we managed to foul the world’s largest freshwater resource to the point that their waters were undrinkable, unswimmable, unfishable. We used the Great Lakes as a repository for the waste of our cities, the discharges of industry, and the runoff from farms and urban development. Because of our unawareness, neglect and, occasionally, even disregard, we have contaminated the most valuable freshwater resource, destroyed habitat, and allowed its food web to be dominated by invasive species.  

This did not happen overnight. It is the result of decades of thoughtlessness and ignorance.

As recently as 50-odd years ago, rivers entering the Great Lakes caught on fire — repeatedly. Beaches were closed because of pollution. Fish kills were common. Lake Erie, the 11th-largest lake in the world, was declared a “dead lake.” Forty-three areas of concern were identified by the U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission as making the lakes contaminated and degraded to the point that they could adversely affect human and/or wildlife health.

But since the passage of environmental legislation in the 1970s — most notably the Clean Water Act in 1972 — we have done a pretty good job of cleaning up our act. Rivers no longer burn. Beaches are open again, for the most part. More than 28 million people draw their drinking water from the lakes. Yet, significant problems persist. In 2014, nearly a half-million of those people had their drinking water turned off when Toledo, Ohio, shut down its water intake because of massive toxic algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie. And 34 areas of concern remain on the commission’s list.  

Pregnant women are advised to refrain from eating fish caught in some parts of the Great Lakes. Toxic algal blooms are found not just in Lake Erie; they recently reached the shores of one of the world’s most pristine lakes, Lake Superior.

In a recent opinion piece published here, James Hohman characterizes the effort to correct these ills — the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) — as a cash handout to special interests and a program that will cost future taxpayers by adding to the federal deficit, although he acknowledges that addition is insignificant.   

Hohman comes close, but misses the mark. There is a saying that “we don’t inherit the environment from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” The GLRI is not a debt we are pushing onto future taxpayers — it is a debt we are paying off from our past actions. And here is the kicker: It makes economic sense. Restoration dollars return two to three times their investment in value to our region and our nation. And we can afford it. 

The Great Lakes region supports the fifth-largest economy in the world at around $3.1 trillion per year (more than twice the GDP of Russia, by the way). Much of this is the direct result of an abundant supply of freshwater. This is a huge attractor. While much of the West continues to dry up under prolonged drought, communities in the Great Lakes region are being touted as “climate refuges.” 

I agree that the GLRI should end — when it is finished. This is no small task, and this is not a quick fix, but it is doable. So, let’s set a target date, figure out the cost, and get out of the restoration business. This is also one of the central recommendations of the 2022 report from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Advisory Board, an independent federal committee tasked with advising the agency on the progress of the GLRI. Twenty years from now sounds reasonable for that target. We once vowed to put a man on the moon in 10 years, and we did it.   

Future taxpayers, our children, will be relieved of a burden that is our responsibility, not theirs. They should inherit an environment that promotes their health, not compromises it.

J. Val Klump, JD, PhD, is a professor and dean emeritus of the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is a member of the International Joint Commission’s Science Advisory Board, recent member (2020-2022) of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Advisory Board, and a fellow of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters. He has studied the Great Lakes for over 40 years.

Tags Clean Water Act Environmental protection Great Lakes Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Act of 2015

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