"The Great Lakes are a unique American treasure," said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who introduced the Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection Act on Thursday. "Nearly a tenth of our population lives in the Great Lakes basin, relying on the life-sustaining drinking water the lakes provide, and reaping economic and recreational benefits from them daily. We must recognize that we are only their temporary stewards and do all we can to ensure that the federal government meets its ongoing obligation to protect and restore the Great Lakes."
Senator George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican who co-chairs the Senate Great Lakes Task Force and an original cosponsor of the bill, said, "This legislation will ensure the vital resources necessary to protect and preserve the Great Lakes for future generations. It will also establish the advisory capacity necessary for federal agencies, local government and others to come together to share ideas and guidance and to prioritize funding needs."
Sunset over Lake Michigan (Photo by Kevin Dooley under Creative Commons License)
Cosponsors in the Senate include: Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Richard Durbin of Illinois, all Democrats.
In the House, Congressman Vern Ehlers introduced a companion bill, saying, ""The Great Lakes are a precious resource located in our own backyard, so it is imperative that we do everything we can to protect them. The longer we wait to address areas of serious contamination, the more difficult and expensive it will be to clean them up."
Cosponsors in the House include Representatives John Dingell of Michigan, Louise Slaughter of New York, both Democrats, and Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois.
The legislation authorizes the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and provides $475 million annually for the program, which was first funded in President Barack Obama's 2009 November continuing budget resolution. This restoration initiative would remove contaminated sediments from the lakes, control invasive species, reduce nonpoint source pollution, and restore fish and wildlife habitat.
The new legislation reauthorizes the Great Lakes Legacy Act and provides $150 million annually for removal of contaminated sediments from the lakes and their connecting waters.
The bill guarantees $25 million annually for the next five years for the U.S. EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office, which oversees existing Great Lakes programs for the agency.
Runoff enters Lake Erie as snow melts in spring. (Photo by Allan Crain)
The bill would create the first standing advisory group to the EPA on Great Lakes issues, establishing a two-tiered advisory group: One tier would be the Great Lakes Leadership Council. The GLLC would include federal agencies, states, tribes, local government. The council would approve long term and annual goals, report progress to Congress, the President, and the general public to determine structure for participation in international forums and make budget recommendations.
The second tier would be the Great Lakes Management Committee, which would report to the Great Lakes Leadership Council. The GLMC would provide direction on planning, assessment and reporting efforts, track and assist in implementation, and engage in problem solving.
Committee members would include representatives of the four governmental groups in the GLLC as well as one representative each from the International Joint Commission, Great Lakes Fishery Commission, Great Lakes Commission, industry, environment, agriculture and the science and academic community.
The legislation requires federal agencies to incorporate restoration recommendations from the leadership committee into their annual budgets and restoration plans or explain why those recommendations are being ignored.
Environmentalists praised the new legislation.
"This monumental legislation adds momentum to Great Lakes restoration and sets in place a framework for the future," said Lynn McClure, co-chair of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition and midwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "We applaud the President for proposing his Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and we applaud Congress for introducing bi-partisan legislation that recognizes the national importance of the Great Lakes to our economy and way of life."
Plume of toxic waste spreads across Lake Superior. (Photo courtesy EPA)
"This legislation means we all have a say in making sure Great Lakes restoration is done right," said Jill Ryan, co-chair of Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition and executive director of Freshwater Future. "Passage of this bill will pay huge dividends for the people, businesses and communities which rely on the lakes 365 days a year. We urge the U.S. Congress to pass this bill, before the problems get worse and the solutions get more costly."
The Great Lakes contain 20 percent of all fresh surface water on the planet, and 95 percent of all fresh surface water in the United States.
The lakes support one of the world's largest regional economies, including a $7 billion fishery and a $16 billion tourism industry. A study by the Brookings Institution found that every $1 spent on Great Lakes restoration would yield $2 in economic activity in the region.
More than 35 million people rely on the lakes for drinking water, jobs and their way of life.
But the Great Lakes are threatened by chemical pollutants, invasive species that cost the region at least $200 million per year in damages and control costs, and habitat destruction that harms water quality, wildlife, and the outdoor recreation industry.
"After decades of assault and abuse, the Great Lakes will not be healed overnight," said Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. "It's going to take a sustained, multi-year effort to nurse the lakes back to health, which is why the new Great Lakes bill is a big deal. It shows that Congress is treating the Lakes as a national priority. Passing this bill will create jobs, protect public health and uphold our way of life."
In February, the EPA, as leader of a task force in collaboration with other federal agencies, released the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan, which identifies five priority focus areas.
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