Don’t mess with the Great Lakes

In a surprising development, in late July a Congressional committee acted like, well, thoughtful, rational legislators. Why? Six words: Don't mess with the Great Lakes.

Here's the story. First came behavior we've come to expect from the U.S. House of Represenatives. An appropriations subcommittee -- which has primary responsibility for determining Great Lakes funding levels in the House -- slashed funding for Great Lakes restoration by a full 80 percent. Funding levels would drop from almost $300 million to $60 million. As one of my colleagues said, they seemed to forget there are five Great Lakes and only funded one of them.

That funding cut would really hit our region where it hurts. The Great Lakes are drinking water for 30 million people, the economic engine for our region, and central to our quality of life. They support industries and businesses that supply $62 billion in payroll annually for 1.5 million jobs. And in an ever thirstier world, they are our competitive advantage, a resource that no other place on the planet can match.

But our lakes have been in trouble. Invasive species, toxic sediment, polluted runoff, algal blooms, and shoreline destruction have endangered our fishing, swimming, drinking water, and quality of life.

Those problems and the need to address them have been recognized by 30 million Great Lakes residents and the eight governors, two presidents, and members of the U.S. Congress who represent them. President Bush's administration first drafted a widely acclaimed restoration plan calling for a multi-billion dollar federal investment in the Great Lakes, and President Obama has implemented that plan through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and $1.3 billion in funding so far.

The result has been inspiring. Great Lakes restoration has been one of those rare programs that is widely recognized as being effective, has bipartisan support, and is championed equally by the business community and environmental organizations. Administered by the U.S. EPA, it has funded over 1,500 projects, including cleanup of Trenton's Black Lagoon, restoration actions on Belle Isle, cleanup of thousands of pounds of toxic sediment in the Detroit River, Muskegon Lake, and other hotspots, and the restoration of 141 acres of wetlands at Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge.

Great Lakes restoration has brought enormous economic benefits to accompany the ecological ones. According to a Brookings Institution study, for every dollar invested in Great Lakes restoration, the region receives between two and four dollars of economic value -- a return on investment of between 100 and 300 percent. Not bad for a government program.

So getting back to the action of the U.S. House subcommittee last week, perhaps it wasn't as shocking as it should be that a subcommittee in this dysfunctional body voted to decimate a program that everybody agrees is vital and effective.

The surprise came later in the week, the next step of the appropriations process. Normally the full committee makes a few minor adjustments but generally accepts what the subcommittee passes. Not this time. Republican and Democratic members of the committee rushed to introduce amendments that would restore all or part of the funding. When the dust settled, the committee approved restoring the program to $210 million, a $150 million increase from the subcommittee. The Republican committee chair, facing a revolt from Great Lakes members of his own party, openly admitted that he'd made a mistake with the original cuts and promised to restore additional Great Lake funding before the process was finished.

It seems that for a brief moment, sanity has broken out in the U.S. House of Representatives.

What happened? To put in bluntly, within hours of the original massive cuts, all hell broke loose in the Midwest. Local chambers of commerce sent in letters demanding that funding be restored -- after all, tourism, recreation and industry were at stake. The 120-organization Healing Our Waters Coalition weighed in with calls, letters, and mass mobilizations. Editorials slamming the decision and decision makers came fast and furious from all eight states. And our members of Congress from both parties came together and said, this has gone too far.

It may be that sanity reigns for now in this House committee, but we can't afford to dial back the outrage. Even with the partial restoration of funding, Great Lakes restoration funding for our region is taking a 30 percent cut in the House. That's 30 percent less funding for tourism, recreation, for businesses, for our kids to go swimming, for fishing and boating. It's 30 percent we and the nation can't afford.

So call your U.S. Senator and member of Congress, write your local paper, talk to your neighbors. Any background information you need is on the Healing Our Waters Coalition website, www.healthylakes.org. Give them this simple message:

Don't mess with the Great Lakes.

Andy Buchsbaum is Regional Executive Director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Natural Resources Center in Ann Arbor.

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Comments

Charles Richards
Thu, 08/15/2013 - 12:56pm
"Great Lakes restoration has brought enormous economic benefits to accompany the ecological ones. According to a Brookings Institution study, for every dollar invested in Great Lakes restoration, the region receives between two and four dollars of economic value — a return on investment of between 100 and 300 percent. Not bad for a government program." No doubt this is sacreligous of me, but who is it that derives the benefits from this program? According to Mr. Buchsbaum the Brookings Institution says, " the region receives between two and four dollars of economic value — a return on investment of between 100 and 300 percent." That is to say, the 30 million residents of the eight Great Lake states receive the benefits. Do the citizens of California, Missouri,or Kentucky receive any of the benefits from this program? No, they do not. This is another case of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. We in the Great Lakes region derive considerable benefits, but only pay a small portion of the costs. The rest of the nation derives no benefit from the program, but their costs are not large enough to justify investing much of their limited time and energy in avoiding. This is another case of "logrolling" where one group of politicians pledge to vote for a program whose supporters don't want to pay the full costs, if the politicians advocating that program promise to support a program that the constituents of the first group of politicians don't want to pay the full costs of. And then of course, citizens and editorial writers supporting each program complain about the "special interests" benefiting from their tax dollars. By which, of course, they mean the other guy's program. It is a fact of life that Congress, as an institution, is held in very low esteem, yet citizens generally think their Congressperson is doing a fine job. Why? Because the vast majority of voters judge their Representative or Senator by how many benefits, paid for by others, they succeed in bringing home. Of course, it is a zero-sum, fools' game in which the nation as a whole is the loser. It is not uncommon for respected editorial writers of major papers to complain that their state is a "donor" state. Then, of course, everyone complains that our national policy making is dysfunctional. I have no doubt the program Mr. Buchsbaum supports has many benefits for the Great Lakes region, especially given the very decent cost-benefit ratio. The crucial question, however, is why, given the obvious benefits, the voters of the region are not willing to support it with their own tax dollars? The obvious answer is that the voters' discount rate is too high, their time horizon too short, and that their public spiritedness is wanting.