This year’s presidential election was decided in large part by the Democratic Party’s ability to restore the so-called “blue wall” of Great Lakes states that Donald Trump breached in the 2016 election.
In the end, six of the eight American states that border on the Great Lakes contributed 105 electoral votes to Joe Biden’s victory, nearly 39% of the total electoral votes he received. The challenge now for elected officials in the Great Lakes region — and for others concerned with the health of the region’s economy and environment — is to push an agenda that translates those electoral votes into investment.
For the 98,000 square miles of open water that compose the Great Lakes, the last four years can be characterized as, at best, a waste of time. Trump liked to fish for votes in the region, but he cared little for the health of the waters that 40 million people rely upon.
Trump rewarded the Michigan and Wisconsin voters who brought him victory in 2016 by attempting to zero-out funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The funds were intended for efforts to combat the biggest threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem, with money to be spent on fighting harmful algae blooms, ensuring safe drinking water and controlling exotic species. The goal was to put the Great Lakes on a path that might someday allow fishermen to regularly and safely eat the native fish they catch.
In 2020, with his poll numbers sagging across the region, Trump reversed course and actually proposed a slight increase in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, but the short-term nature of his concern remains obvious. It is on full display at the Environmental Protection Agency, where Trump’s appointees have gutted the environmental regulations that protect our water.
The Great Lakes, a vast freshwater sea, may be the United States’ greatest natural resource. Yet too often the health and protection of those waters have been dismissed as a local concern. From the 1830s until the Civil War, Southern legislators repeatedly blocked efforts to build a safe navigation system on the lakes. The deaths of hundreds of mariners and passengers each year for want of safe harbors were dismissed, and federal intervention on what were said to be “northern lakes” was deemed unconstitutional.
The Republican Party, born to fight the expansion of slavery and rooted in the Great Lakes states, was strongly committed to investment in a maritime infrastructure for the region. That came to pass after President Abraham Lincoln’s election, and those investments resulted in the lake states becoming the industrial heartland of the nation. They were democracy’s arsenal in the wars against fascism and communism.
While portions of the industrial belt have rusted, the inland navigation systems created in past centuries still help generate $33.5 billion in annual economic activity and support hundreds of thousands of jobs. Yet in recent decades critical features of that infrastructure have been starved of investment.
Half of all harbors and navigation improvements are in failing condition. Many of the breakwaters critical to recreational and commercial watercraft were built before World War I. Meanwhile the federal government spends billions of dollars annually bailing out communities on the hurricane-ravaged saltwater coasts.
It is time to challenge Sunbelt policies that stymie infrastructure investment in the American heartland.
The threat of high water levels challenges the Great Lake states, arising unexpectedly after record low water levels only a few years before. This is a reminder of the complicated nature of our environmental challenges and the impossibility of ignoring human-triggered global climate change any longer. And the ability of the Great Lake states to address their battered shorelines has been hamstrung by COVD-19, which has hit the region especially hard and drained statehouse coffers.
The many challenges facing the Great Lakes should be high on both the budgetary and environmental to do-list of the new administration.
Among the most important priorities are fully funding the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, restoring water quality regulations and vigorously enforcing sanctions for violations. We need significant reinvestment in Great Lakes maritime infrastructure, including shoreline protection, harbor works and safe drinking water systems. We should design innovative interventions to reduce farm fertilizer runoff, enable conservation agriculture, and increase research funding to manage the impact of exotic species on the lake ecosystem.
Investments in Great Lakes environmental quality have consistently proven to stimulate economic activity, job creation and improved property values. More than ever, we need national reinvestment in a priceless resource.
The blue wall of Great Lakes states tilted the 2020 election in Joe Biden’s favor in 2020. If the new administration tends that wall better than Donald Trump did, it may well be there to lean on again in four years.
Theodore J. Karamanski is a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago and author of “Mastering the Inland Sea: How Lighthouses, Harbors, and Navigational Aids Transformed the Great Lakes and America.”
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