Environmental restoration program is driving economic growth in Great Lakes communities

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which was established in 2010 by Congress and supported by former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has provided more than $2.5 billion to clean up contaminated harbors, restore fish habitat and keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes. It also has created or supported as many jobs as a traditional, government-funded economic stimulus package, according to a study by the University of Michigan’s Research Seminar in Quantitative Economics.

According to the study, every federal dollar spent on GLRI projects between 2010 through 2016 will produce an additional $3.35 of additional economic activity in the Great Lakes region through 2036. Researchers said the GLRI has created or supported thousands of jobs, strengthened tourism in the region and increased residential property values in coastal communities across the basin by $900 million.

“The GLRI is critical for healthy Great Lakes, which are in turn critical to the continued success of our region’s manufacturing and industry sectors,” said Kathryn Buckner, president of the Council of Great Lakes Industries. “This study shows that the GLRI not only is improving the ecosystem, but it also has generated and will continue to generate economic activity in the region.”

The Council of Great Lakes Industries and the Great Lakes Commission coordinated the study, which was funded, in part, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

“It’s not often that you hear about a government program that’s fulfilling its original mission and also generating billions of dollars in economic benefits,” said Ridgway White, president of the Mott Foundation. “The GLRI is exceeding expectations by restoring the Great Lakes while also producing the kind of return on investment that would make Wall Street envious.”

In recent years, Congress authorized $300 million per year for the GLRI through 2021. Although President Trump tried to eliminate all funding for the GLRI in the 2018 federal budget, Congress allocated $300 million to the program.

The study said the GLRI has advanced efforts to restore the Great Lakes, on many fronts. Funding from the program has:

  • Helped clean up and restore numerous harbors and coastal areas that were contaminated by decades of legacy pollution;
  • Protected, restored and enhanced 642 miles of shoreline and river corridors, 17,500 acres of coastal wetlands, and more than 180,000 acres of habitat;
  • Helped keep Asian carp from invading the lakes;
  • Prevented 402,000 pounds of phosphorus from entering the Great Lakes; and
  • Helped complete cleanups at three toxic hot spots, known as Areas of Concern — Presque Isle in Pennsylvania, and Deer Lake and White Lake in Michigan.

Despite those improvements, the $2.5 billion that Congress has provided for the GLRI to date is a fraction of the amount needed to fully restore the lakes. When the GLRI was established, experts said completing the job would cost more than $26 billion.

“Healing the entire Great Lakes ecosystem will require a Herculean effort and much more federal funding, but the GLRI has given us a great start,” said Tim Eder, an environment program officer at the Mott Foundation. “This groundbreaking study demonstrates that future funding of the GLRI will have huge ramifications — for the environment, the regional economy and the tens of millions of people who rely on the lakes for work, recreation or drinking water.”

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