Landmark legacy programs fade, replaced by water justice and equity
As the Biden administration continues to gain momentum, the narrative on water issues has changed, at least in what comes to my inbox. It's all about water infrastructure and equity.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by the Alliance for the Great Lakes' top five priorities for the Biden administration. The first two are environmental justice and drinking water infrastructure including ending water shutoffs. The vaunted federal restoration program, the bread and butter issue for well over a decade, is relegated to number 3. It wasn't that many years ago that neither EJ or shutoffs would have made the list.
That's a big deal so a little history.
It's approaching 17 years, May 18, 2004 since President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13340 declaring the Great Lakes a national treasure and ordered a "regional collaboration of national significance" to deal with the lakes' long-standing environmental problems.
Bush's order laid the foundation for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2009 and President Barack Obama put $475 million in his 2010 budget to jump start the restoration program, and it began. The federal government was on the hook to clean up the Great Lakes.
They were milestone events that were years in the making and there was more to come.
In October 2008 Bush signed the Great Lakes Compact into law. The Compact was the eight-state agreement approved by congress crafted to prevent diversions of water from the lakes outside the basin. This was important as arid states are always eyeing sources of water and the Compact shut the door, though its architects somehow felt the need to make an exception to the ban on diversions for bottled water. A compromise for the greater good, they said.
But if you're a 30 year old staffer at a Great Lakes environmental not-for-profit today, you were a sophomore in high school, or younger when this happened and probably not paying much attention.
Just because these programs aren't today's cause du jour, should we let restoration and the Compact continue to fade into marginal relevance?
No, both are important but overdue for an update, just like cars, cell phones and laws are updated. Especially the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
It's a mile wide and an inch deep disbursing billions of dollars over thousands of projects across multiple federal agencies. That's a lot of bureaucracy and every mouth has to be fed. Every politician has to have a slice of the pie.
Meanwhile, its primary raison d'etre, to restore legacy polluted sites known as Areas of Concern moves at a snail's pace. And worse, it's become a crutch for politicians to show environmental credibility, when it may not be deserved. What member of congress can pass up a photo op that brings a few million dollars to his/her state or district, even though the project is likely marginal related to the overall needs of the Great Lakes.
I say props to the Alliance for the Great Lakes for jumping on the environmental justice and ending water shutoffs bandwagon. Folks who are disenfranchised from basic water service in a region with an abundance of it will appreciate the help.
Now, how about a campaign to fix the Great Lakes restoration program before it's relegated to what recycling has become. What we try to do but has become "not worthwhile."
The 15 minute clock is ticking.
Follow on Twitter at @garyglx5. Opinions here are solely mine.
Chicago-based environmental journalist