As the nation faces unprecedented challenges, clean water is more important than ever. The deepening COVID-19 crisis reminds us daily of the deep connection between clean water and public health. Investments in clean water programs support getting people back to work and protect public health, a win for everyone.
The Great Lakes and our communities face serious challenges, from crumbling water infrastructure to the threat of invasive carp. Thanks to strong, bipartisan efforts over the past decade, we have made significant progress toward our collective vision of safe, healthy Great Lakes accessible to all.
But much more remains to be done. We need to address places where systemic racism is undermining the protection of safe and clean water for all. Our vision of a healthy, safe Great Lakes for everyone includes addressing environmental injustices. It also means recognizing that a changing climate will make existing Great Lakes problems worse for the foreseeable future. There is no time to waste.
We have identified our top five priorities for President Biden’s administration for their first year in office. We look forward to working with President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the members of their administration to move forward protection of one of our nation’s most precious resources, the Great Lakes.
1. Prioritize Environmental Justice
Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by pollution. Environmental justice seeks to address this unfair distribution of pollution and repair the harm that it causes. It requires the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of people of color and low-income communities in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. The Great Lakes region has the opportunity to lead the way, to show how environmental justice can be achieved. There are specific actions the administration can take to address environmental justice in the Great Lakes region right now.
President Biden should ensure that environmental justice is centered in the work of all federal agencies and administrative decisions that impact the Great Lakes and the communities and residents that are dependent on them for drinking water, jobs, and recreational opportunities. To start, the administration should:
- Repeal Executive Order 13950 that bans racial sensitivity and diversity and inclusion training for federal agencies and contractors;
- Revitalize and promote the work of the Environmental Justice Interagency Working Group, expanding its membership and participation;
- Reconvene the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration to update the “Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes” and set new goals for policies, programs, and funding with a focus on specific actions that can be taken across federal agencies to combat environmental injustice in the Great Lakes region;
- Propose the funding necessary to support staffing and implementation of environmental justice work across federal agencies;
- Establish an Environmental Justice Director or team in U.S. EPA’s Region 5 (and other regional offices) to coordinate with U.S. EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice and provide capacity, expertise, and accountability across programmatic efforts;
- Provide grants through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) to communities of color, Indigenous communities, and low-income communities to address disproportionate impacts of environmental harm.
2. Increase Drinking Water & Wastewater Infrastructure Funding & Stop Water Shutoffs
Clean water is a basic need. No one should be without clean, safe, affordable water in their home. No one should have to worry about sewage backing up into their basement or community flooding that damages property. Yet, communities across the Great Lakes region continue to grapple with crumbling, antiquated drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. The longer we wait, the harder and more expensive these problems will be to solve.
The eight Great Lakes states need $188 billion over the next 20 years for improvements, upgrades, and repairs to this infrastructure. Paying for water infrastructure projects is expensive. Yet the costs to fix them are often not shared equitably, which underscores the importance of financial support from the federal government.
Clean water and water infrastructure are ever more critical in the midst of the COVID-19 public health crisis. Investing in clean water infrastructure is a win-win, creating jobs and protecting public health.
President Biden should propose dramatically increased funding in FY2022 and other federal support to fix our failing drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems.
Additionally, President Biden should include the following in his infrastructure proposals:
- Enact a federal ban on residential water shutoffs due to nonpayment and require reconnection of water service;
- Make permanent and clarify the implementation of federal assistance programs for low-income communities and ratepayers passed by Congress in 2020;
- Increase funds available as grants to utilities, with a particular emphasis on construction funding for lower-income communities, and flexible support to state and local governments in supporting affordability and assistance programs;
- Allocate a percentage of infrastructure funding for resilient nature-based infrastructure solutions.
3. Fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative & Restore & Strengthen Clean Water Protections
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) provides funding for on-the-ground restoration projects, from wetland restoration to cleaning up toxic hotspots, throughout the Great Lakes region. In addition to improving the Great Lakes ecosystem, the GLRI results in more than 3-to-1 in additional economic benefits across the region.
To build on the past success of the GLRI:
- President Biden should include at least $375 million for the GLRI in the FY2022 budget request to Congress, consistent with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Authorization Act;
- U.S. EPA should ensure that GLRI funding is used to address issues of environmental justice across the region;
- U.S. EPA should consider climate change impacts when making funding decisions about projects to ensure projects remain relevant in a changing climate and to fund projects that improve climate resiliency across the region.
President Biden should also restore and strengthen the clean water protections eliminated by the last administration and remove harmful regulations or Executive Orders proposed by the last administration to ensure that our environment and public health are protected, including:
- Set a policy goal for the administration to restore basic water enforcement and monitoring practices for the Great Lakes to be at least as strong as what was in place in 2016;
- Revoke U.S. EPA’s October 2020 proposed ballast water rules that leave the Great Lakes less protected than they are now;
- Propose increased funding for federal agencies that work to protect public health and the environment in the President’s FY2022 budget. In particular, U.S. EPA needs increased staffing for basic day-to-day monitoring and enforcement of clean water, drinking water, and other critical environmental laws.
4. Fund Efforts to Stop Invasive Carp
Invasive carp pose a clear threat to the Great Lakes. Established populations of these fish are only 50 miles from Chicago and Lake Michigan. But it’s not too late to prevent them from reaching the lakes.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed the construction of additional invasive carp measures at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam, located near Joliet, Illinois. After years of study and public debate, this project has been identified as the best step in stopping the fish from entering the Great Lakes and has wide bipartisan support.
To stop invasive carp, President Biden should:
- Direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed immediately to pre-construction engineering and design (PED) for the Brandon Road project;
- Direct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to include funds for the Brandon Road project’s PED in its FY2021 work plan and direct the Office of Management and Budget to approve the use of these funds for PED;
- Include specific funding necessary for PED in the President’s FY2022 budget.
5. Address Agricultural Pollution that Drives Harmful Algal Blooms
Nutrient pollution that fuels harmful algal blooms is a significant threat to the region’s drinking water, quality of life, and economic well-being. Runoff from agricultural lands is a significant contributor to the phosphorus pollution that drives these blooms.
Farm Bill conservation programs are critical to addressing water quality problems caused by agriculture. But these voluntary programs are not enough to prevent this pollution. Farm Bill conservation programs should link funding with accountability to ensure that they are achieving clean water goals. To accomplish this goal, the Biden administration can start with the following:
- President Biden should propose full funding for Farm Bill Conservation Programs as authorized in Title II of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 in his FY2022 budget;
- U.S. EPA should require states to prioritize Clean Water Act Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) in Harmful Algal Bloom prone watersheds and step in to fulfill those obligations if states fail to do so. Additionally, the U.S. EPA should work to strengthen the TMDL program by requiring implementation plans and timelines for achieving nutrient reductions;
- U.S. EPA Office of Water should lead and work with Region 5 staff and the Great Lakes National Program Office to oversee the development and coordination of regulatory, management, and restoration activities, including data management and reporting by agencies working to reduce harmful algal blooms on Lake Erie;
- President Biden should direct U.S. EPA to exercise its responsibility under the Clean Water Act to establish numeric water pollution standards for nutrients and other pollutants.