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Courtesy of Yi Zhang

More than 4 million recreational vessels are registered in the Great Lakes region and people spend nearly $16 billion annually on boating trips and equipment, according to the Brookings Institution.

Great Lakes advocates worry over prospective loss of restoration funds

by Dorothy Zhang
March 09, 2011

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Dorothy Zhang/


More than 1.5 million U.S. jobs are directly connected to the Great Lakes in 2009, generating $62 billion in wages annually, according to Michigan Sea Grant at the University of Michigan.

The Great Lakes, the vital economic engine of their region, are likely to take a hit in slashed federal funding for their restoration. Great Lakes advocates are deeply concerned.

When the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives voted to chop $61 billion in federal spending this year, it included a $250 million cut from the $475 million annual level of fiscal 2010 and current-year spending for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. This long-range Great Lakes cleanup program aims to provide money for habitat restoration, keep invasive species like the Asian carp out of the lakes, and clean up polluted areas. The House’s funding proposal for the program was $75 billion below President Barack Obama’s budget request for fiscal 2011, which ends Sept. 30.

“By half-funding this kind of a program, it’s like half-funding your child’s education, your retirement savings,” said Thomas Cmar, a Midwest program attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

During the House’s voting for the proposal, 235 Republicans were in support of the federal spending cut, while 189 Democrats, joined by three Republicans, opposed it. All the Republican representatives from the Great Lakes region supported the spending cut.

Cmar contends that the funding for the Great Lakes is basic investment in cleaning up and restoring a resource that provides tourism and recreational jobs, drinking water and many other values.

According to a recent research by Michigan Sea Grant at the University of Michigan, over 1.5 million U.S. jobs are directly connected to the Great Lakes, generating $62 billion in wages annually.

The study showed that Michigan, the only state that touches four of the five Great Lakes, has 525,886 jobs depending on the Great Lakes, more than any other state. Illinois ranks second with 380,786, followed by Ohio with 178,621 and Wisconsin with 173,969.

A report released by the Brookings Institution in 2007 estimated that the Great Lakes restoration could bring economic benefits of at least $50 billion to the region. Using property values as a measurement tool, the report also estimated $7.4 million to $13.3 million economic gains for Chicago.

“The Great Lakes are a critical resource,” Cmar said. “But its apparent vastness should not be taken for invincibility.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that more than 24 billion gallons of sewage are released into the lakes every year. Sources of pollution to the lakes include storm water, agricultural runoffs and industrial and city waste discharges.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also noted that agricultural runoffs, nitrogen and phosphorus going into the lake have put continuing stress on the Great Lakes. Nutrients are added in farm fields in order to revitalize the soil for growing crops, but when they added in excessive amounts and then washed off in rainfall, they end up contributing to harmful algae that grows in the Great Lakes.

“The health of the Great Lakes is our DNA,” said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, a joint U.S.-Canada agency that monitors border issues. “The quality of our waters in the Great Lakes is integral to our economic health and well-being in general.”

The annual value of Great Lakes commercial and sport fishery is estimated at more than $4.5 billion by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In Michigan, the impact of charter fishing to tourism in coastal communities is significant, with more than $395 million in gross sales generated from 1999 to 2009, stated a Michigan State University study. Charter fishing also attracts out-of-state visitors, who added $147.6 million in sales and $56.7 million in labor income to Michigan’s economy during 1999 to 2009, according to the study.

Wayne A. Brofka, a biologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, observed that once the water in the Great Lakes is cleaned up, fish would also be safer to eat, since now there still are advisories for eating certain species of fish based on the level of contaminants saturating their flesh.

Invasive species still pose a significant threat for the Great Lakes ecosystem and fishing industry.

The Great Lake Commission reported that more than 180 non-native aquatic species have become established in the Great Lakes, causing economic losses estimated at $5.7 billion annually. Asian carp, the latest and potentially the most damaging one, are poised to invade the Great Lakes from the Illinois River.

Cmar observed that Asian carp, where they establish a breeding population, out-compete native species, disrupting their food chain. He said that would have a potentially devastating impact on the ecosystem of the Great Lakes.

Other problems also are targeted by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Eder pointed out that 42 spots around the Great Lakes, known as Areas of Concern, have been identified as toxic for more than 25 years, but only two of them have been cleaned up. In some cases, the toxic pollution that remained in the sediments on the bottom of the lakes in those legacy sites still continues to poison fish.

“When you start to clean up those coastal communities and those areas of concern,” Eder said, “you see property values rebound, you see businesses coming back to the coastal line, and you see people open their doors to the waterfront.”

Over 4 million recreational vessels are registered in the Great Lakes region and people spend nearly $16 billion annually on boating trips and equipment, according to the report released by the Brookings Institution.

“We need our basic investment in the future and they need to be made regardless of the economic conditions we currently face because we need to clean up the Great Lakes so that it will be able to fuel our economy in the future,” Cmar stressed.