A Billion Dollar Idea

The bulkheads built during the 20th century to strengthen riverbanks throughout the Great Lakes region gave rise to a multi-billion shipping industry, put tens of thousands of people to work, and elevated cities like Cleveland, pictured above, as a critical global transportation hub for the United States.

But those concrete and steel walls also accelerated the degradation of water quality, ruined fish habitat, and left behind unsightly waterfronts that are incompatible with the region's 21st century goal of attracting top talent and growing the knowledge economy.

Now, as the grey and decaying bulkheads wear out, and local leaders assess the expensive replacement costs, innovators in Cleveland are hard at work designing a new kind of retaining wall that aims to achieve the twin goals of improving river commerce and restoring the environmental health of working waterways.

"There currently are no products that do that," said Jim White, executive director of the Cuyahoga River Remedial Action Plan. "So inventing a new product that can be built, sold, and installed to replace the aging and failing old sheet steel system creates businesses and jobs."

White and a team of civic leaders recently received approximately $1.8 million in federal funding to develop performance standards for a High Performance Shoreline Management System, or Green Bulkhead; construct and install a prototype; and evaluate the new technology. The initiative further illustrates how many of the problems confronting the Great Lakes region - invasive species, contaminated waterways, etc. - are susceptible to new technologies. It also advances the case that a major investment in a Great Lakes cleanup program could spinoff entirely new industries that speed the evolution of the regional economy.

"Green bulkheads are easily a billion dollar marketplace just in the Great Lakes," Mr. White said in a recent interview. "If you add the numbers of miles of failing steel shoreline that have to be replaced in ship channels – the Milwaukee River, the Detroit River, the Maumee – river after river has a hardened edge shoreline and all of them suffer from the same related problems."