WASHINGTON - In July, the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on the Great Lakes Ecological and Economic Protection Act, which I introduced along with a bipartisan group of eight Senate cosponsors, including Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, my co-chair on the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, and Michigan's Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
This legislation would help restore and protect the Great Lakes, the largest source of surface freshwater on the planet. It would target the most significant problems facing the Great Lakes and ensure that we implement these projects cost-effectively.
The Great Lakes are one of the world's great treasures, providing drinking water to more than 40 million people; supporting 1.5 million U.S. jobs and $62 billion in wages; transporting critical supplies for manufacturing, electricity generation and food for the world; and supporting the region's $4.6 trillion economy.
The Great Lakes brought industrial and natural resource development to the region, which resulted in tremendous economic development and population growth. This development, however, also resulted in toxic substances polluting the waters and sediments, untreated wastewater threatening public health, and polluted runoff choking habitats and killing aquatic life. The recent toxic algae bloom on Lake Erie that cut off drinking water to a half a million residents is just one example of how much we depend on our lakes.
The Great Lakes Ecological and Economic Protection Act, also known as GLEEPA, would tackle problems from past pollution and protect the lakes from current and future threats.
GLEEPA would formally authorize the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an inter-agency program launched by President Obama in 2009 to implement a regional collaboration strategy developed in 2005 through a process established in an executive order by President George W. Bush.
The history of the restoration strategy clearly shows the work of restoring and protecting the Great Lakes is founded on a plan that reflects a broad range of viewpoints and has strong bipartisan support.
GLEEPA would focus federal resources on the areas of highest priority identified in the collaborative plan, which would be further refined as new science and information become available. While the GLRI is broadly authorized in the Clean Water Act, passing this legislation would help ensure the program has clear congressional direction and goals, is results-driven and transparent, and implements the most cost-effective solutions.
The bill would also formally establish the Great Lakes Advisory Board to provide advice and recommendations concerning restoration and protection. The board would reflect many different viewpoints, including local, state and tribal governments; environmental, agricultural and business organizations; hunters and anglers; and academia.
Finally, the bill would formally establish a 10-member interagency task force to coordinate restoration efforts, ensure projects are not duplicated and that they use existing successful programs. GLEEPA also would accelerate progress toward the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a formal agreement between the U.S. and Canadian governments establishing shared goals for protecting and improving water quality of the Great Lakes.
The GLRI has achieved real progress: cleanup of more than 1.3 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment; control of the destructive sea lamprey and restoration of sturgeon, trout and other important fish species; construction and improvement of barriers to prevent an invasion by destructive Asian carp, and planning for additional measures to keep these fish out of the lakes; protection of tens of thousands of vital habitat acreage; and restoration of thousands of miles of rivers for fish passage. GLEEPA would help ensure that progress continues to be made using a solid framework for achieving measurable and outcome-based results.
The Great Lakes are precious and irreplaceable. As temporary stewards of this invaluable resource, we must do all we can to restore and protect the Great Lakes for the millions of people who depend on them today and the millions more who will in the future.
I'm glad the Water and Wildlife Subcommittee held an important hearing on this vital legislation, and I'm hopeful it can receive approval from the full committee and move on to a vote in the Senate.
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Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force.