Can the Great Lakes Still Be Great Uniters?

An Agenda for the Biden Administration

These are the most divisive times many of us have ever lived through. The violent right-wing coup attempt at the U.S. Capitol claimed five lives and shook our democracy to its core. Tragically, this unprecedented attack was motivated by the strategic racism and culture of white supremacy that is used, all too often, to separate us from one another and block progress towards a just, healthy, and sustainable future.

The National Wildlife Federation is redoubling our commitment to intervene not only on behalf of environmental justice but also on issues of racial equity and justice that move far beyond the lane of what is typically seen as the mission of a “conservation organization.”

In fact, fighting back against strategic racism is an environmental issue, because you can’t have a healthy ecosystem and community unless everyone within it has the opportunity to thrive. Along with the rest of our team here at the Great Lakes Regional Center and throughout our organization, I am personally deeply committed to this effort.

As it turns out, the day before the assault on our elected leaders in Congress, there was a piece of good news out of Washington, D.C. On January 5, a two-year effort, led by Republicans and Democrats across the Midwest, came to fruition when legislation to authorize and increase the funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was signed into law.

How do we juxtapose these two seemingly inconsistent events one day apart? Can President Biden and his administration use their stated interest in rebuilding civility, democracy, and bipartisanship to advance issues of clean water, equity, and Great Lakes protection?

In my opinion, the first question requires deep reflection and action on the meanings of justice, equity, and success, which is a journey that the National Wildlife Federation and I personally are on. The second question should be a clear “yes.”

A sunset along a Michigan shoreline.
A sunset slips below the Lake Michigan horizon. Wispy purple clouds are visible in the pink sky, and a sand dune sits in the foreground. Photo by Michigan DNR.

The Biden Administration can and should use the Great Lakes as a great uniter, and perhaps even as one element of a path back to bipartisan sanity once we’ve had the appropriate focus on accountability and justice. The base to work from is incredible: An astounding 88 percent of residents in the states and Canadian provinces that border these invaluable waters want to see them protected and are willing to pay for it. On the U.S. side, that includes overwhelming majorities among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

A Bipartisan Win: The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

When people speak that loudly, politicians listen. That’s why Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Rep. David Joyce (R-OH), and Rep Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) worked together to pass the new, updated version of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

President Biden now has authorization for more than $2 billion over the next five years to restore the largest bodies of fresh water in North America and has the opportunity to undertake these activities through the lens of equity and justice – to ensure that the communities and people most impacted by pollution and environmental harm are prioritized.

Protecting our Great Lakes is a perfect fit with President Biden’s stated agenda to unify our country. This broadly popular program will protect our natural resources while at the same time saving and creating jobs and business opportunities.

A few sandhill cranes in a wetland.
Protecting habitats like wetlands and clean water will benefit wildlife, like the sandhill cranes pictured here. Photo by Teresa McGill.

Three Goals for the Next Four Years

The waters of the Great Lakes – and the thousands of species of birds, fish, and wildlife who make their home here – have no political party. The hunters, anglers, hikers, campers, and local businesses who rely on clean water for outdoor recreation and sustainable industry come from all across the political spectrum.

National Wildlife Federation is a lead convener of the Healing Our Waters coalition, bringing together environmental organizations, conservation groups, zoos, aquariums, museums, and many other diverse stakeholders. I’m proud to serve as one of the co-chairs of this coalition.

As the Biden team takes office, the coalition sees three policy initiatives that could be implemented immediately and set a Great Lakes agenda that crosses political boundaries for the next 4 years:

1. Expanding the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative’s focus to include environmental and economic justice

The renewal of the program will support thousands of projects across the region that are putting local people to work cleaning up toxic sediments, restoring wetlands, curbing sewer overflows, and tackling other vital projects.

Going forward, it’s important to drive environmental justice throughout the program by targeting dollars to the marginalized communities who’ve long borne the costs of environmental injustice. That means concrete steps to ensure representative community engagement, and expanding the restoration narrative to address racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities. The Biden Administration can build on success while addressing equity and justice in a powerful way.

2.  Protecting safe drinking water

Forty million people in the U.S. and Canada rely on the Great Lakes to supply drinking water to our homes and business, and immediate action is needed to fix our aging drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems. Cutting corners on essential public infrastructure, combined with flawed and unjust governance as well as systemic racism, can lead to disasters like the lead contamination of Flint and the water shutoffs in Detroit.

It seems surreal that providing safe, clean drinking water could be an issue in the middle of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem. But the threats are very real, going beyond lead pollution to include toxic PFASs (the “forever chemical”), harmful algal blooms, and water affordability.

Far too many people around the Great Lakes region lack access to clean, safe drinking water. The Biden Administration can help alleviate these issues by investing over $100 billion over the next five years to solve the drinking water and wastewater crisis. These investments will pay off for taxpayers and the private sector by boosting employment, increasing affordability for ratepayers, and keeping the water flowing into our taps. No issue is more important, especially as the COVID health crisis drags on, and this can be part of a stimulus package. 

In years past, the federal government paid for as much as 63 percent of the costs needed for clean water infrastructure. That share has now dropped to nine percent, with the resulting burden hitting hardest on low-income and minority communities. By prioritizing the communities which need them most and making clean water a top priority (likely by using stimulus and infrastructure funds), President Biden can prevent more disasters while working toward a more economically and socially just future.

3. Restoring and strengthening the Clean Water Act protections

In one of the most sweeping regulatory rollbacks to the Clean Water Act since its inception, the Trump Administration gutted the Clean Water Rule and greatly limited the scope of waters protected under the law. The Biden EPA must repeal the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule” and replace it with a definition that provides maximum federal protections for all streams, wetlands, and other waterways.

This battle over jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, which is centered around the Great Lakes, impacts every other issue of water quality and quantity. I hope that the Biden Administration can work with Congress to put in place a permanent fix that strengthens water quality protections. Without these water quality protections, our streams and rivers risk “death by a thousand cuts” through impacts to all of the small tributaries that feed into our larger waterbodies, including the Great Lakes.

A shot of Tahquamenon falls with vegetation in the frame.
Water thunders over the edge of Tahquamenon falls, framed by leaves and vegetation. Credit: Michigan DNR.

Critical Issues: Invasive Species, Clean-Up, and PFAS

In addition to these cross-cutting initiatives, the Biden Administration has the opportunity to make significant early progress on three specific issues of great importance:

1. Stopping Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes

Invasive species already in the Great Lakes create over $200 million annually in damages, but nothing worries ecologists like the threat of Asian carp. If these species were to establish a breeding population, they could comprise as much as 40% of Lake Erie’s biomass, devastating all other species.

Fortunately, the Biden Administration has the opportunity to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to proceed as rapidly as possible to implement the Brandon Road barrier project in Illinois. This effort, which has strong bipartisan support, will create a physical barrier that will greatly reduce the risk of these invaders entering the Lakes.

2. Cleaning up Lake Erie

Runoff pollution, mostly from agriculture, causes an annual massive harmful algal bloom in the western basin of Lake Erie (and many other waterways in the Great Lakes). This led to the shutoff of drinking water in Toledo in 2014, among other impacts such as negative effects on wildlife, pets, and livestock. The states bordering the western basin and the province of Ontario have established nutrient reduction goals that would significantly reduce the annual bloom.

The first benchmark — a 20% reduction by 2020 — has not been achieved, and it’s even less likely that we’ll reach 40% by 2025. The Biden Administration should fully implement the binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement utilizing all federal authorities including the Clean Water Act, Farm Bill, GLRI and other mechanisms to meet the target of 40% reductions in nutrient pollution. Moreover, the Biden Administration should revamp the oversight management regime to be more inclusive, collaborative, and accountable for progress towards the target, similar to the Chesapeake Bay Program.

3. Address PFAS Pollution

PFASs – the “forever chemicals” – are devastating the Great Lakes region due to their persistent and toxic nature, creating health hazards in many communities that cannot afford a comprehensive cleanup. To date, the federal government has been little help but the Biden Administration can make a big difference. Three key steps: Establish protective federal drinking water and groundwater standards; list PFASs as toxic substances, and require the Department of Defense to clean up the “forever chemical” from contaminated military sites.

While these specific challenges and opportunities need direct solutions, I’m heartened by the fact that the Biden Administration is prioritizing addressing climate change at all levels. Climate change is disrupting the delicate balance of the Great Lakes ecosystem, threatening the long-term survival of America’s wildlife.

Higher temperatures and greater precipitation mean greater flooding, which interferes with agricultural production and the over $7 billion-dollar-per-year Great Lakes fishing industry. These same conditions can also lead to harmful algal blooms and an increase in harmful bacteria like e coli, harming our drinking water supply and closing our precious beaches, a keystone of our annual more than $20 billion tourism economy in Michigan and beyond.

The Great Lakes power our economy, provide drinking water to millions of Americans and promote a healthy way of life. Building on a track record of bipartisan cooperation, President Biden can positively impact people, businesses, and wildlife who are sustained by this unique national treasure.

I’m not naïve enough to claim that this relatively small action will, by itself, do all that is needed to rebuild and reframe democracy and civility in our country. In fact, healing and unity cannot take place without accountability and justice first. However, I do believe that the Great Lakes specifically, and conservation more generally, have a powerful role to play in leading to equity, justice, and even accountability. President Biden can help the Great Lakes play their traditional role as great uniters at a time when this is more needed than ever.

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Published: January 20, 2021