Great Lakes Restoration Success Needs to Continue

By Todd Ambs

The city of Chicago overlooks these Northerly Island wildflowers. The plants provide habitat for native wildlife. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Northerly Island. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Chicago residents recently celebrated the opening of a 40-acre nature preserve on Northerly Island. The former airfield now offers people opportunities to hike, bike, and even camp downtown, on the shores of Lake Michigan. The park, which provides important habitat for fish, wildlife, and migratory birds, is one local example of one of the most successful conservation efforts in America right now: The restoration and protection of the Great Lakes.

This week, hundreds of Great Lakes advocates have been in Chicago to discuss both the progress—and ongoing and emerging challenges—in the national effort to restore and protect the Great Lakes.

Over the last six years, the federal government has invested more than $1.9 billion to restore and protect Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, supporting more than 2,500 projects to clean up toxic pollution, restore fish and wildlife habitat, reduce runoff from cities and farms, and combat invasive species.

Numerous projects are producing impressive results. Greater Chicago success stories include:

  • The Calumet Conservation Corps is removing invasive plants to restore native fish and wildlife habitat;
  • Ravine stabilization and restoration around Chicago is preventing runoff and sedimentation into Lake Michigan;
  • A wildlife corridor along Lakeshore Drive is providing habitat for migratory birds and other native wildlife;
  • And dune restoration at North Point Marina beach is deterring gulls from colonizing the area so that water quality improves and the beach can remain open for swimming.


The Chicago skyline. Photo credit: shutterstock.

The Chicago skyline. Photo credit: shutterstock.

These are some of the many successful Great Lakes restoration projects that are benefiting communities and are a boon for hikers, campers, anglers, hunters, kayakers, paddlers—and the businesses which benefit from those pursuits.

Funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, these efforts are producing results for communities around the region—protecting our drinking water, jobs, and way of life. Federal restoration projects, according to the U.S. EPA, over the last six years have restored or protected more than 148,000 acres of wildlife habitat and wetlands; opened up more than 3,400 miles of rivers and streams for fish; and cleaned up five of the most polluted harbors and rivers in the region, including Waukegon Harbor.

These programs are good for the environment and economy. A Brookings Institution study found that every $1 investment in Great Lakes restoration produces at least $2 in economic benefit in the form of increased fishing, tourism, recreation and property values. But even that solid return on investment may be understated: A 2011 study concluded that the $10 million investment to restore Michigan’s Muskegon Lake led to more than $66 million in economic benefit—a whopping 6-to-1 return on investment.

Simply: Great Lakes restoration is a smart investment. I’d argue it’s one of the best investments on the dollar in the federal budget.

And it’s an investment that needs to continue. Despite the progress we’re making, serious threats remain—from toxic hotspots that threaten public health to harmful algal blooms like the one last summer which left more than 400,000 residents in Toledo, Ohio, without access to safe drinking water. Until we’ve put an end to beach closings, fish consumption advisories, and drinking water restrictions, our work is not done.

The good news is that Great Lakes restoration efforts have attracted strong bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress over the last several years. Republicans and Democrats have rallied around Great Lakes restoration efforts—pushing back at suggested cuts over the last three years. And they’re doing it again, urging colleagues to maintain Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding in the current budget.

Keeping Great Lakes restoration efforts on track over the long-term, however, will take three things:

First, Congress needs to enact legislation to permanently authorize the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The success of the program is unparalleled. The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has issued two reports in the last three years. The GAO’s conclusion: The program is working. Despite its strong track record, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been an appropriation inserted into the budget by the sitting president and funded by Congress. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative needs to be authorized for the long-term so that we can see the job through.

Second, the next president needs to make Great Lakes restoration a national priority. Presidential leadership has been vital to accelerating the cleanup of the Lakes. President George W. Bush helped forge the restoration blueprint that guides restoration efforts to this day; and President Barack Obama committed $5 billion dollars to make that plan a reality. The next president needs to carry the torch as well.

Third, federal public officials cannot undermine restoration progress with bad policy choices. The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent clean water rule, for example, is a strong policy that needs to stay in place and not be weakened. The rule restores Clean Water Act protections to wetlands and other streams that supply drinking water to 1-in-3 Americans. It is vital to the health of the Great Lakes and more than 117 million Americans. Weakening the rule would undermine restoration efforts. Simply, we cannot take two steps forward and one step backwards.

At a time when we many Americans worry about what the federal government may do to us, people in the Great Lakes states can celebrate what this federal initiative is doing for us. Great Lakes restoration efforts are working. We need to make sure that they continue.

Todd Ambs is campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. The Coalition is hosting the 11th Annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Chicago. The conference concludes today.

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