Feds must prioritize funding for Great Lakes restoration

Oct 16, 2015 Issues: Environment

The Great Lakes and their connecting waterways carried the first European explorers to Michigan in the 1600s.  And it was the Lakes (and the Erie Canal) that brought large numbers of settlers to Michigan in the early 1800s.  These settlers lived by the water in places like Detroit, Mt. Clemens, Rochester and Pontiac.

The Lakes served as a highway to carry crops, lumber, iron and copper to market. Tributaries of the Great Lakes provided waterpower for early industry.  Much later, Henry Ford would build the massive Rouge Plant at the confluence of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers.

As much as the Great Lakes and their tributaries have shaped Michigan’s history, we have also shaped these waterways – and not always for the better. Decades of sewage and industrial waste had nearly killed the Great Lakes by the 1960s. The damage was even more serious in the Lake’s nearby tributaries that  suffered serious degradation over the years.

n 1987, we named 43 of the most environmentally-impaired waterways in and around the Great Lakes “areas of concern,” or AOCs, but that term hardly does justice to the extent of the damage. At the time of their listing as AOCs, these waterways were environmental dead zones, and, until very recently, little progress was made in cleaning them up.

One of AOCs in the Detroit area is the Clinton River. This waterway is nothing like the sleepy river that once ran through ancient hardwood forests. Especially since World War II, rapid population growth and development transformed what was once a pristine stream into a river on life support.

Decades of sewage fouled water quality in the river. Fish and other aquatic wildlife struggled to hold on. As hard surfaces replaced fields and wetlands in the watershed, the river became more prone to flooding and erosion. Industrial pollution after the war left a legacy of toxic sediments. By the 1960s, the Clinton River was on its last legs.

Things changed for the better with the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972. It was a long road back, but water quality in the Clinton River has steadily improved. Fish have returned, and the river is increasingly a recreational asset in the area’s emerging Blue Water Economy. But there is more work to be done.

One of the tools that is helping to bring back the Clinton River and other degraded waterways is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or GLRI. Started in 2009, the GLRI has accelerated efforts to protect and restore the Great Lakes and their tributaries. In particular, the program is targeting the highly degraded Areas of Concern. In just five years, cleanup work at six AOCs has been completed, which means these areas can finally be taken off the AOC list.

The Clinton River is one of the next AOCs to benefit from the initiative. The GLRI recently awarded a $4.5-million grant to restore a nine-mile segment of the river in Sterling Heights and Utica. The money will be used to address sedimentation, bank erosion, habitat restoration and invasive species control. Additional GLRI grants for the Clinton River will be announced in the near future.

The GLRI is the largest Great Lakes-specific restoration effort in history. Congress has already provided nearly $2 billion for the initiative, and the program enjoys strong bipartisan support. Even so, supporters of the Lakes can’t take anything for granted.

It’s going to take more than five years and $2 billion to clean up more than a century of environmental abuse in the Great Lakes.  This is vital to a region where 35 million Americans depend on the Lakes for their water supplies, and for a thriving economy.

A bipartisan coalition of House lawmakers, led by Rep. Slaughter of New York, Rep. Joyce of Ohio, and myself, are circulating a letter to President Barack Obama to urge him to include an additional $300 million for GLRI in his next budget request.  Nearly 40 other House members – Democrats and Republicans alike – have joined us. Our letter complements the efforts of Great Lakes advocacy groups, which are also urging the president and Congress to make Lakes restoration a priority.

The Great Lakes and their tributaries have already come a long way, but there is still more to do before they are fully restored.  We can’t rest until we finish the job.

Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, represents Michigan’s 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.