Standpoint Series

Charting a Course From Rust Belt to Blue Belt

By Joel Brammeier

November 3, 2017

This is the third of eight articles in the Standpoint Series, a set of short essays meant to articulate our perspective and spark conversation.

Joel Brammeier
Joel Brammeier, President and CEO, Alliance for the Great Lakes

In our current political climate, everything related to the environment feels like a fight. Despite enjoying broad bipartisan support and a strong return on investment, even securing continued funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has required Great Lakes legislators to do “heavy lifting to protect it,” as one member of Congress put it.

But as I’ve said before, defending what we already have is not the same as winning the protection our water needs. To protect the Great Lakes is to fight for funding and agencies that act in the public interest. It’s to speak up for commonsense laws to protect our waters and to ensure the people who rely on them benefit equitably from this critical resource.

Repairing The Damage Done and Demanding Better

Over the past 40 years, the Great Lakes have been transformed. The Great Lakes region was a hub of heavy manufacturing in the early and mid-20th century. But by the early 1970s, the cracks were beginning to show. The region slowly shifted from the Steel Belt at the center of the country’s manufacturing economy to what many unfortunately still call the Rust Belt. That’s changing.

For a good many residents—though definitely not all—recreational and source water for drinking, bathing and daily use are unquestionably cleaner and safer than they were in 1970s. Or the 80s and 90s, for that matter. Rivers and lakes are home to thousands of species of fish and wildlife, and are centering a resurgence of job growth and community investment in cities across the region. There’s a chatter among the Midwest economic cognoscenti of an emerging “Blue Belt” that could bind our region together once more, as heavy manufacturing did in the previous century.

What magic led us here?

First, an unrelenting push from the people of the Great Lakes led to regulations to reduce pollution from pipes, and to the creation of the U.S. EPA and state agencies to implement those regulations. Next, a commitment from thousands of residents who organized locally over decades to protect their own waters and create the plans to clean up of some of the most toxic sites in the world. After that, governors and premiers who heard the massive public outcry over a proposed new diversion of water out of the lakes and, in response, created legal protections around the Great Lakes water supply that will stand the test of time. And finally, a realization that even the best plans people come up with can face insurmountable obstacles without leadership from Congress and the federal government—the kind of partnership that eventually resulted in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Those were all big improvements, and they all had two things in common. None happened without massive organized public demand. And none of it happened without, or in spite of, government. It happened when our elected officials became responsive to what we all saw was happening around us, and took real action.

We Know We Are Being Heard

Since it began in 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been funded at $300 million annually or more, and has been a rousing success whether defined by ecological improvements or economic gains. In fact, a Brookings Institution report shows that every $1 invested in Great Lakes restoration brings a $2 return in the form of increased fishing, tourism, and home values.  

So when the White House zeroed out the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in its 2018 budget proposal, people were up in arms. Thanks to strong bipartisan support in D.C., members of Congress from the Great Lakes region were able to insert full restoration funding at $300 million in 2018 spending bills and are now setting their sights on 2019.

This is critical work. But we must be mindful that “to restore” means to bring back, reestablish. Great Lakes restoration originated as a repair for the harm that our industrial legacy did to people, places, and jobs. And while we have a long way to go, the people of the Great Lakes didn’t make all that noise just to fix old problems.  

While we continue this work, we must also guard against the threats of today and those looming around the corner.

Creating Our Next Legacy Right Now, For Better or Worse

To every one of the hundreds of elected officials—and the millions of residents they represent—who care about the Great Lakes: we cannot defend Great Lakes restoration while gutting the environmental leadership of government agencies. Pouring restoration dollars into the region while compromising U.S. EPA’s ability to put those dollars to work makes no sense. Spending billions on cleaning up a legacy of 20th century toxic pollution without seriously confronting the toxic byproducts of agricultural runoff today substitutes one problem for another. We should celebrate our progress, but we cannot take victory laps for clean water if people cannot count on safe and clean water at their taps.

Real leadership means understanding that our ecosystem isn’t just critters and water—it’s the issues we take on, the government institutions that work for us, businesses that create jobs and most importantly, the people who live here. To make the transition from Rust Belt to Blue Belt more than a talking point, we must keep investing in restoring the Great Lakes—but as part of a strategic, total effort that acknowledges that today’s limited federal dollars alone will not create the thriving water-centered region we know is possible. That total effort has to include:

  • A serious reckoning with the nation’s $655 billion in unmet water infrastructure demand, and the reality that not every community can afford the investment to provide this basic human need. A large chunk of this weighs heavily on the people of the Great Lakes in the form of unsafe drinking water, sewage-flooded basements and streets, and dirty would-be recreational waters.
  • Policies that keep nutrients on the land and out of our water, and transparent public reporting on whether steps to control pollution are resulting in cleaner water or simply more of the same.
  • Stopping new invasive species from entering the Great Lakes: a zero-tolerance policy and redoubled effort is the only acceptable option.
  • Federal and state environmental agencies that have the resources and directives to enforce laws we already have fairly and transparently, build innovative collaborations, and attract and retain the talent our region and resources deserve.
  • Great Lakes cities that have the know-how, tools, dollars and local support to redevelop communities around their water resources.
  • An invigorated and thriving coalition of Great Lakes residents who reflect our entire region, are inspired to protect the Great Lakes, and have the opportunity to turn that inspiration into meaningful action.

Clean and safe water is as close to a universal environmental value that we have, though it is not a reality for everybody in the Great Lakes region today. We can choose to build that clean water legacy now. To make the Blue Belt our next legacy—to move beyond a cycle of contamination and cleanups—it’s going to take a broad table of partners, an effort that meets both the easy and the sticky, complicated problems head-on, and the committed leadership that we know our clean water deserves.