CARL LEVIN: Bill aims to protect a precious resource

Michigan’s Great Lakes: The Great Lakes are undeniably amazing natural landmarks, and thanks to NASA, its is easier to see how large and beautiful they are. To keep them this way its is important to take steps towards preservation of the water and the wildlife. (Courtesy photo)
Michigan’s Great Lakes: The Great Lakes are undeniably amazing natural landmarks, and thanks to NASA, its is easier to see how large and beautiful they are. To keep them this way its is important to take steps towards preservation of the water and the wildlife. (Courtesy photo)

We in Michigan know that the Great Lakes are a magnificent resource and unique in all the world. These water bodies, formed during the last ten thousand years, are the largest source of surfac e freshwater on the planet. The lakes shaped how people settled and secured resources for their survival.

Native Americans, French explorers, early European settlers, immigrants flocking to new industrial cities all relied on the lakes for survival, just as millions do today. They provide us food and drinking water, transportation, power, recreation, and magnificent beauty.

However, the vast resources of the Great Lakes should not be taken for granted. We must do all we can to protect these waters and clean up the areas that have been harmed by toxic contaminants, polluted runoff, untreated wastewater and destructive invasive species.

That is why as co-chairs of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois and I, along with several of our colleagues, have introduced the Great Lakes Ecological and Economic Protection Act of 2013, or GLEEPA.

This bill builds upon the work of environmental organizations, business groups, tribal governments, community leaders and federal, state and local elected officials who worked together to craft the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy, a 2005 plan to guide restoration and protection for the Great Lakes.

Our bill would formally authorize the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an inter-agency program designed to implement the collaboration strategy. The GLRI targets the most significant problems in the Great Lakes, including aquatic invasive species, toxics and contaminated sediment, nonpoint source pollution, and habitat and wildlife protection and restoration.

While broadly authorized under the Clean Water Act, the GLRI should be specifically authorized in law to clarify its purpose and objectives and to demonstrate support from Congress.

Since the GLRI was launched in fiscal year 2010 with $475 million in funding, we have made real progress in restoring the health of the Great Lakes: More than a million cubic yards of contaminated sediments have been cleaned up. More than 20,000 acres of habitat have been restored or enhanced.

New technologies are being developed to combat the sea lamprey. Asian carp have been prevented from establishing a population in the Great Lakes.

Hundreds of river miles have been restored to enable free fish passage from the Great Lakes to their spawning grounds. Reduction of nutrient loading from agriculture runoff has lessened occurrences of harmful blooms of algae.

In addition to authorization of the GLRI, this legislation would reauthorize two existing programs: the Great Lakes Legacy program, which supports the removal of contaminated sediments at more than 30 toxic Areas of Concern across the Great Lakes; and the Great Lakes National Program Office, which handles Great Lakes matters for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The health and vitality of the Great Lakes not only provide immense public health and environmental benefits, but they are critical to the economic health of the region.

For example, in Muskegon Lake, which is directly connected to Lake Michigan, cleanup of 430,000 cubic yards of sediment contaminated with toxic chemicals provided jobs to barge and dredge operators, truck drivers, biologists, chemists, toxicologists, and others.

The cleanup will help lift fish consumption advisories and restore fish habitat, which is vital in an area that is a popular fishing and boating destination.

And preventing future damage to the lakes – from aquatic invasive species for example – could easily save the public hundreds of millions of dollars in future expenditures. With a $7 billion fishery, $16 billion in annual expenditures related to recreational boating, and over 30 million hunters, anglers and birders enjoying the Great Lakes each year, we cannot afford to not protect and restore this precious resource.

Our bill includes important safeguards to ensure that tax dollars are wisely spent on activities that actually achieve results.

This legislation directs that projects are selected so that they achieve strategic and measurable outcomes, and which can be promptly implemented through leveraging additional non-federal resources.

The bill would also authorize an inter-agency task force to coordinate federal resources in a way that most efficiently uses taxpayer dollars, focusing on measurable outcomes such as cleaner water, improved public health, and sustainable fisheries in the Great Lakes.

I hope the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will promptly act on this important legislation, as it did in 2010 when it approved similar legislation, and that we can quickly enact it into law.

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and the co-chair of the U.S. Senate Great Lakes Task Force.