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Editorial: The Great Lakes investment pays off

Government spending on environmental projects is often a long game in which the benefits take time to materialize. That’s the case with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal program to revive the five lakes.

Since its beginning in 2010, the GLRI has spent about $2.9 billion on some 4,000 projects. A report issued this past week by University of Michigan economists shows it is money well spent.

The report showed that cleaning up Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and other bodies of water is more than a boon to the environment — it brings measurable benefits to our local economy. Going “green” is good for our bottom line.

How good? For each $1 spent on restoring our Great Lakes, the Buffalo area could reap more than $4 in economic benefits through the next two decades, the report said. Economists call it the multiplier effect. In the Buffalo area, it’s $4.09 for every $1 spent on environmental restoration between 2010 and 2036.

If you offered most investors a four-to-one return, their answer would be, “Where do I sign?”

Just last year there were fears that the Trump administration would slash the program’s budget, if not eliminate it. The GLRI avoided the ax, thanks in part to lobbying by Reps. Chris Collins, Brian Higgins and other lawmakers.

Across the Great Lakes, the Michigan economists found that every dollar the federal government invested in GLRI programs between 2010 and 2016 produced an average of $3.35 in additional economic activity in the region. That should continue through 2036, the report said.

The economic payback from restoration money is similar to that of a traditional government stimulus program. In addition to paying people to do cleanup work, there are jobs produced by the increase in businesses related to tourism, recreation and entertainment in the revived waterfronts. Having cleaner water and surrounding land is an added bonus.

Some perspective: In August 1966, President Lyndon Johnson visited Buffalo and saw first-hand the polluted state of the Buffalo River, which empties into Lake Erie. “Lake Erie must be saved,” Johnson declared.

According to Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, the river was “considered dead by the federal government” in 1967. “It caught fire,” Jedlicka told The News in a 2012 interview. “Nothing lived in the river.”

With GLRI funding, a massive cleanup was done along the river’s banks from 2013 to 2015. Crews removed cars, bowling balls and diamond rings — along with PCBs, lead and mercury — during the project.

Projects funded by the federal initiative include cleaning up toxic hot spots, controlling invasive species, eliminating water pollution and restoring native habitats, including some in the Buffalo River and Buffalo Harbor.

In addition to the measurable economic benefits to cleaning up our region’s waterfronts, there are psychological ones. For example, writing positive articles about “the new Buffalo” has become practically its own genre for national publications.

As Edward J. Healy of Visit Buffalo Niagara said to The News this week, “Virtually every major article about Buffalo by visiting travel writers in recent years has mentioned either Canalside, RiverWorks, Silo City or the Outer Harbor, and the activities found in these waterfront hot spots.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is in its second four-year phase, running through 2019. There’s always a danger that federal budget-cutters will try to take a chainsaw to the program in future years.

That would be a big mistake. Rare is the federal program of this size where the benefits are so obvious. And water is our primary natural resource in Western New York.

A Harvard University professor recently told the Guardian in London that Buffalo is one of two U.S. cities, with Duluth, Minn., that are poised to become ideal refuges from climate change in the future. “Their sources of energy production are stable, they have cooler climates and they have access to plenty of fresh water,” said Jesse Keenan, a climate adaptation expert. Thriving lakes will only become more important to the region — and the country.

We are confident that our region’s representatives in Congress will continue to stick up for the GLRI.

“It’s been a bipartisan effort,” Higgins said. “It’s more regional than ideological.” That’s as it should be.

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