Restoring America's Great Lakes Key to Competitiveness

The cost of fully funding a comprehensive plan to restore America's Great Lakes is pegged at $26 billion. But the long-term return on that investment could easily exceed $50 billion, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution, as the region becomes a more attractive place to live, work, and visit.

The report also projects a short-term economic benefit of as much as an additional $50 billion.

The report, scheduled to be released today, represents the most thorough and credible analysis yet on the economic advantages that could accrue to Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and other Great Lakes states now struggling to transition from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age.

The report comes as a growing coalition of scientists, environmentalists, business leaders, and elected officials prepare to kickoff the third annual Great Lakes Restoration conference in Chicago tomorrow.

The report signals a momentus shift in strategy for the public campaign to fully fund the proposed Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes. Until now, proponents of the restoration strategy, which was officially released in December 2005, framed the urgent need for Great Lakes restoration as primarily an environmental issue. Investing in restoration, they said, is urgently needed to stop outdated sewers from polluting waterways, prevent invasive species from ruining the fishery, and cleanup toxic contamination in harbors and rivers.

Those issues still stand. But the federal legislation to implement the public works project continues to languish in Congress.

With the release of this new report campaign organizers are broadening the restoration debate from a one-dimensional environmental program to include a compelling economic angle. Specifically, the report reveals that fully funding the restoration will:

  • Leverage $6.5-$11.5 billion in increaesed recreation spending as cleaner waterways make swimming, fishing, and other tourism activities more inviting.

  • Raise coastal property values $12-$19 billion as rehabbed waterfronts become more attractive to private investors.

  • Slash municipal costs by $50 to $125 million as reduced erosion and sedimentation makes water treatment less expensive.

  • Generate "unquantifiable but significant economic activity" by improving the regional quality of life and making the region more attractive to new high tech businesses and top-flight talent.
"For the past half century," the report states, "the Great Lakes region has struggled to find its niche in a changing global economy. The Great Lakes themselves can be a key asset in this process - serving as a platform for sustainable economic growth, a crucible for freshwater protection and technology development, and the foundation for this region to thrive anew as a magnet for skilled workers."

"Federal, state, local, and tribal leaders must recognize that the benefits of renewal exceed the costs and work together to commit the resources needed to restore the lakes," the report concludes.