By Todd Ambs
Over the last decade, Buffalo has been at the center of efforts to restore and protect the Great Lakes. This week, more than 300 advocates for the lakes will be here to discuss the successes and challenges in protecting a resource that more than 30 million people depend on for drinking water.
The successes are many. Over the last eight years, the federal government has invested more than $2.5 billion in 3,500 projects as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in the eight-state region of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota to clean up toxic pollution, restore fish and wildlife habitat, fight invasive species and reduce runoff pollution from cities and farms.
In Buffalo, federal investments have helped accelerate the restoration of the Buffalo River, which had been contaminated with lead, mercury and PCBs – remnants of the city’s industrial past. More than 1.1 million cubic yards of contaminated river muck were hauled away – enough to fill two football stadiums.
Investment in the river has spurred economic investment exceeding $750 million, helping to redefine the city’s waterfront and attract visitors to the area. These results are being replicated across the region.
But serious threats remain – from closed beaches to fish consumption advisories to toxic algal blooms. Scaling back our nation’s commitment to the lakes will only make projects more difficult and expensive the longer we wait.
As Congress concludes its business, the Republicans and Democrats who have worked together to make Great Lakes restoration a national priority can take four steps to keep restoration efforts on track:
First, support $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in this year’s final federal budget.
Second, increase by at least twofold – to $5 billion – funding to help communities fix their water infrastructure. The region’s drinking water, stormwater and wastewater infrastructure faces nearly $179 billion in repairs, upgrades and fixes over the next 20 years – with New York State’s need at more than $53 billion. Federal investments in infrastructure have declined over the past several decades.
Third, reject budget cuts to agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and others charged with overseeing federal restoration efforts. Cuts undermine the effective administration of restoration efforts and are counterproductive.
Finally, this week marks the 45th anniversary of the Clean Water Act – a landmark environmental law that helped rejuvenate the lakes and tributaries and set the stage for current restoration efforts. Current efforts in Congress to weaken protections of this law cannot be tolerated.
New York’s congressional delegation has stood strong for the Great Lakes. We need its support now more than ever so that we can protect the Great Lakes and our drinking water, jobs and way of life for people now and for generations to come.
Todd Ambs is the campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.