The Great Lakes live up to their name. The five lakes contain 21 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, their shorelines total 10,500 miles and the regions surrounding them are home to some 35 million people. Economically, the lakes help provide more than 1.5 million jobs with $62 billion in annual wages.
These numbers make it easy to understand why the health of the Great Lakes is critically important. But that vitality has been jeopardized by two centuries of development.
In response, public- and private-sector groups in the United States and Canada over the past decade have launched efforts to clean up and protect the lakes. The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, formed in 2004, drafted a restoration strategy. The Brookings Institution’s Great Lakes Economic Initiative produced a detailed report in 2007 titled “Healthy Waters, Strong Economy.”
Bringing the Great Lakes’ ecosystem back to health takes money, however. For the last five years, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has pumped some $1.6 billion into this effort, including more than $3 million for local projects.
For this work to continue, though, Congress must authorize additional funding. This week, the House of Representatives took a big step in that direction by passing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Act of 2014. This legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Perinton, authorizes $300 million in annual funding for fiscal years 2015-2019.
Senate approval and President Barack Obama’s signature would not guarantee funding, but without this legislation the restoration money will not make it into future appropriations bills.
The Brookings Institution report outlined the estimated return on investment in Great Lakes restoration. It concluded that a decade-long, $26 billion investment would translate into more than $50 billion in direct economic benefits.
The restoration initiative funding falls well shy of this goal, but its positive impact in terms of economic development and quality of life should not be underestimated. The Senate should act promptly to approve this bill and deliver it to the president.
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