The Great Lakes restoration campaign - led by conservation groups, industry, and state and local governments to get more federal funding for research, habitat restoration, and toxic clean-ups - is taking some deserved criticism for simply throwing a lot of money at existing problems without providing new solutions. As Dan Egan reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article “Great Lakes aid isn't a cure-all; Despite $475 million restoration plan, damage continues in freshwater system”, some environmental advocates are beginning to question the effectiveness of a strategy that focuses on spending money on old problems as new and ongoing sources of pollution and degradation go unchecked.
I’m not saying the Great Lakes should turn down federal restoration funds – the funded projects will do some good things and pump more money into our regional economy. However, it doesn’t make much sense to spend federal money researching responses to invasive species when the federal government is still dragging its feet in closing the door on new invasive species coming into the Great Lakes. Similarly, restoring coastal habitat is certainly important, but the federal government’s and states’ collective failure to enforce wetlands laws will undermine the effectiveness of money spent on coastal habitat restoration. And as we ask Congress for money to clean up legacy contamination hot spots in the Great Lakes, we should be preventing new toxic messes from occurring – such as contaminated coal waste landfills on Saginaw Bay.
There is also a public perception problem with the Great Lakes restoration campaign. It gives the public the sense that our environmental problems are remnants of the old days, before laws like the Clean Water Act were put in place. If this were true, then spending money on old problems would make sense. But while we have made tremendous progress in environmental protection, the reality is that many environmental disasters are still occurring. The recent New York Times Toxic Waters series illustrates how pollution from coal mining, coal waste, and animal feedlots is literally poisoning our waters. If we spent a fraction of the restoration money on enforcing existing laws to prevent new sources of pollution, we would see a better return on our investment with cleaner water and healthier families.