Once upon a time, a president named George W. Bush called the Great Lakes "a national treasure," formed a group to come up with a restoration plan, and did nothing.
That was in May 2004. The regional group he formed later came up with a $20 billion plan to clean up the lakes.
This year, 2009, Part 1 of that regional strategy is about to kick off, to address threats like invasive species, scoop out contaminated sediments and restore wetland and other habitat in the five Great Lakes. Believe it or not, a $475 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has just passed through Congress and is just a Barack Obama signature away from becoming reality. The plan is far from $20 billion. But folks in the environmental community are pretty excited about it. If you've been starving, a cracker tastes pretty good.
The funding is seen as a down payment on a campaign promise by Obama to create a $5 billion trust fund for the lakes. The restoration plan is designed to last for five years, totaling more than $2 billion.
This is the world's largest supply of surface freshwater we're talking about here. And scientists, along with regular folks, say there's a lot of work that needs to be done to clean it up. The lakes are clogged with excess algae these days, and were used for years as the dumping ground for cities and a ballast rinser for ocean-going vessels.
They still are, actually, but that's changing too. Slowly. Hopefully, since we all need water to live.
The $475 million is precedent setting, and about twice as much as is now spent on programs to address threats to the lakes.
And this is about economic recovery, too. A Brookings Institution study found that the eight-state Great Lakes region stands to gain at least $2 in economic benefit for every $1 invested in Great Lakes restoration.
The start of a Great Lakes restoration is due in large part to efforts by a group called Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, made up of more than 110 environmental, conservation, outdoor recreation organizations, zoos, aquariums and museums.
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