Levin: Effort to restore the Great Lakes paying off

U.S. Rep. Sander Levin

We are so fortunate to be surrounded by the Great Lakes. They are a natural treasure that holds 95 percent of our nation’s supply of fresh drinking water. Jobs, recreation and tourism all depend upon a healthy and flourishing Great Lakes ecosystem.

But we have not always treated the Great Lakes the way we should. During the middle of the last century, the lakes were dying. That started to change in 1970 with the passage of the Clean Water Act, which began the slow and expensive process of cleaning up sewage and toxic pollution that had fouled the lakes and their tributaries for decades, and preventing new pollution. While today’s programs are largely successful in protecting the Great Lakes, there is a lot more to do before they are fully restored.

We need to grapple with the toxic hotspots in the Great Lakes basin. In 1987, the U.S. and Canada finalized a list of 43 ecologically degraded areas around the Great Lakes. Called areas of concern or AOCs, “disaster areas” would be a more accurate description. These 43 sites had serious problems, including toxic sediment, degraded habitat, algal blooms, fish that were unsafe to eat, and beach closures.

At that time, one of those sites in my district, the Clinton River, was little more than a blighted open sewer that was unfit for fishing, boating, recreation or anything else. It was on life support.

Almost 20 years after listing the 43 areas of concern, we had managed to clean up just one of them. The rest sat unaddressed mainly because of a lack of money to take on the core problems in these impaired areas.

Things began to change in 2002 with the passage of the Great Lakes Legacy Act, a new federal program that provided a dedicated source of funding for cleaning up contaminated sediments, an environmental problem in the areas of concern. In 2004, the Legacy Act, together with the state of Michigan, paid to remove more than 470,000 pounds of contaminants from the Black Lagoon inlet on the Detroit River near the city of Trenton.

While the Legacy Act was a good first step, a more robust cleanup program was clearly needed. That came in 2009 when President Barack Obama created the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, commonly known as the GLRI. The initiative was designed to address the most significant problems facing the lakes, such as toxic pollution, growing dead zones, degraded habitat, invasive species like the Asian carp, and polluted runoff from farms, fields, and urban areas.

Congress has now provided almost $2 billion for restoration activities through the GLRI. This impressive investment reflects the fact that Great Lakes restoration is a bipartisan priority for our region’s congressional delegation. When Reps. David Joyce, R-Ohio, Louise Slaughter, D-New York, and I recently circulated a letter to a key House committee urging continued funding for GLRI in 2016, an unprecedented 51 House Members, Democrats and Republicans alike, signed on.

And the GLRI is showing real and measurable results. During its first five years, five of the Areas of Concern have been cleaned up, including White Lake in west Michigan and Deer Lake in the Upper Peninsula. Over the next few years, the GLRI, with support from the Great Lakes states and local communities across the basin, will complete cleanup work in at least 10 more areas of concern —including the Clinton River, which has made a remarkable ecological comeback in recent years. Indeed, water quality improvements in the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair are the cornerstone of an emerging blue economy in Macomb County that aims to leverage these natural resources as valuable economic assets.

Addressing the remaining problems in the Great Lakes will be hard work, but with continued effort and resources, the day is not far off when we will finally remove the Clinton River and all the other impaired waterways from the list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern. Simply put, the GLRI is not only correcting mistakes from the past, but building a better future for our children and grandchildren.

U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, represents Michigan’s 9th District.