Fresh funds are being infused into the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, promising a lasting effect on the humans who rely on the great inland sea and the fish that will swim in its cleaner waters.
If approved in the House of Representatives – it’s already passed in the Senate – this new billion-dollar portion of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill will address environmental problems both in urban and rural areas.
The funding provides a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to “secure a cleaner, more sustainable and equitable future,” as Brian Smith, an associate executive director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Buffalo, wrote in a recent Another Voice.
The infrastructure package includes a $1 billion boost for the Great Lakes program, to be distributed over five years. Among its benefits will be higher standards for drinking water, whether it flows through municipal water systems or rises from rural wells. And by improving the area’s water – our No. 1 natural resource – the money will help to develop the “blue economy” that will be part of our future prosperity and position the region as a climate-change refuge.
Advocates are already thinking about how to use the money. Among their plans is remediation of sediment in the Black Rock canals, Scajaquada Creek, Two Mile Creek, Cayuga Creek and other local waterways. That will build on work that has already been done.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has been an advocate for the Great Lakes, guiding both the infrastructure bill and the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill through the chamber. Another $375 million is also expected in the annual GLRI appropriation of $375 million, which is due Oct. 1.
Advocates for the lakes and clean water are excited, and for good reason. Such transformative legislation would address long-standing environmental issues. For example, work remains to be done on the Buffalo River, which is expected to be delisted as a “federal area of concern.” The Niagara River was listed in 1987 as a toxic area of concern and remains on the list.
Also critical is that the infrastructure bill provides $55 billion for clean water improvements, including $15 billion for lead service line replacement. That is especially important in places like Buffalo, where many households rely on water delivered through approximately 100 miles of dangerous lead pipes.
Addressing a lesser-known problem, the infrastructure bill also provides $4.7 billion to plug and remediate all orphan oil and gas wells across the country. The number of them in New York is large, but uncertain. While the state has documented more than 2,400 of these abandoned wells, it estimates that there may be more than 34,000 of them. They are an ongoing hazard, releasing both methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, and toxic chemicals that pollute the groundwater.
Since its passage in 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has improved the water in and around all five lakes, including Lake Erie and the Buffalo and Niagara rivers. The program was nearly crippled when former President Donald Trump sought to cut it by as much as 90%. It made no sense, either environmentally or politically, since both Republicans and Democrats populate the lakes region and depend on its waters. Fortunately, he backed off.
We all will benefit from a robust, blue economy that takes care of the environment while creating jobs and bolstering the regional economy. This will be money well-spent. Congress should approve it.
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