After a bitter election, impending impeachment, and a tightly divided Congress, is it still possible for Americans to come together to solve common problems?
Hopefully yes, when it comes to protecting our Great Lakes. An overwhelming 88% of Great Lakes residents support and are willing to pay for Great Lakes restoration. However, it cannot be ignored that it is difficult to reach a consensus during the most divisive times that we have lived. I won’t soon forget the shocking images of rioters brandishing Confederate flags and displaying vile anti-Semitic slogans in the corridors of the United States Capitol.
That is why my organization, the National Wildlife Federation, is redoubling our commitment to environmental justice and racial equity, going beyond the typical mission of a “conservation group.” In fact, fight strategic racism it is an environmental problem. You cannot have a healthy ecosystem and community unless everyone in it has a chance to prosper. And you cannot have unity without justice and responsibility.
It turns out that the new year brought good news. On January 5, a two-year bipartisan effort paid off when legislation to increase funding for the The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) became law. Illinois lawmakers played a key role, including US senators and eight members of Congress from the Chicago area.
A strong focus on the Great Lakes is one way, a small way, but it’s a start, to remind us that not all issues are strictly partisan and that justice can cross borders. The thousands of species of birds, fish and wildlife that live here have no political party. Hunters, fishermen, hikers, campers, kayakers, and local businesses that depend on clean water for outdoor recreation and sustainable industry come from across the political spectrum.
That is why it is so important that President Biden and Congress act together, and that Illinois and Michigan accept jointly finance a vital project to design and engineer a barrier at Brandon Dam in Joliet to prevent voracious Asian carp from taking over Lake Michigan.
Here are three ways President Biden can build on this impressive foundation of interregional and bipartisan cooperation:
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), with $ 2 billion now authorized over the next five years, it can be a powerful tool for environmental justice. Cleaning toxic sediments, curbing sewer overflows, restoring fisheries, and other projects can make a big difference, especially in low-income communities that have been neglected for too long and too often the site of incinerators, landfills, and other environmental nuisances.
Protect safe drinking water. Forty million people depend on the Great Lakes for their water, and communities throughout Chicagoland suffer from old and dilapidated water systems. The federal government used to pay up to 63% of the costs of the drinking water infrastructure. That proportion has now dropped to 9%, with the resulting burden hitting low-income and minority communities hardest. What is needed is an investment of $ 20 billion each year for the next five years; the potential stimulus package is a vehicle to meet this need.
Restore and strengthen the protections of the Clean Water Act: In 2019, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) removed limits on the development and use of harmful chemicals, allowing dangerous releases without permits in many wetlands and other waterways. A new leadership team at EPA must reinstate these guardrails to ensure that the Clean Water Act protects our upstream water supply that feeds the Great Lakes.
These are not the only problems the new administration can and should address, PFAS (the “forever chemicals”), toxic algal blooms (such as those that cover the western Lake Erie basin each summer) and releases of Ballast water (which was brought to us by zebras and quagga mussels) are also ripe for collaborative action.
As our new president works to unite a divided nation, a dose of Midwestern-style common sense can be a helpful tool. Protecting and restoring the Great Lakes is a real-life example of how working together, across party lines and state lines, and with fairness and justice as the driving force, can produce concrete results and perhaps even some healing. national.
Mike Shriberg, PhD, is the Great Lakes Regional Executive Director of the National Wildlife Federation and a professor at the University of Michigan.