President Biden, protecting the Great Lakes can be a bipartisan issue

Restoring the Great Lakes is a real-life example of how working together can deliver concrete results and perhaps even some national healing.

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Boaters on Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is one of the ways President Biden can begin to move forward on environmental issues.

Boaters on Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is one of the ways President Biden can begin to move forward on environmental issues.

Anthony Vazquez | Sun-Times

After a bitter election, with an impeachment trial looming and a closely divided Congress, is it still possible for Americans to come together to solve common problems?

Hopefully, yes, when it comes to protecting our Great Lakes.An overwhelming88% of Great Lakes residents support and are willing to pay for Great Lakes restoration. Yet there’s no ignoring that consensus is hard to come by during the most divisive times we’ve ever lived through. I won’t soon forget the shocking images of rioters brandishing Confederate flags and showing off vile antisemitic slogans in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

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That’s why my organization, the National Wildlife Federation, is redoubling our commitment to environmental justice and racial equity, moving beyond the typical mission of a “conservation group.” In fact, fighting back against strategic racismisan environmental issue. You can’t have a healthy ecosystem and community unless everyone within it has the opportunity to thrive. And you can’t have unity without justice and accountability.

As it turns out, the new year brought some good news. On Jan. 5, a two-year bipartisan effort bore fruit when legislation to increase funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) was signed into law. Illinois lawmakers played a key role, including both U.S. senators and eight Chicagoland-area members of Congress.

A strong focus on the Great Lakes is one way — a small way, but it’s a start — to remind us that not every issue is strictly partisan and that justice can cross boundaries. The thousands of species of birds, fish and wildlife who make their home here have no political party. The hunters, anglers, hikers, campers, kayakers and local businesses who rely on clean water for outdoor recreation and sustainable industry come from across the political spectrum.

That’s why it’s so important to see President Biden and Congress take action together — and to see Illinois and Michigan agree to jointly fund a vital project to engineer and design a barrier at the Brandon Dam in Joliet to prevent the voracious Asian carp from taking over Lake Michigan. 

Here are three ways President Biden can build on this impressive foundation of bipartisan, cross-regional cooperation:

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), with $2 billion now authorized over the next five years, can be a powerful tool for environmental justice. Cleaning up toxic sediments, curbing sewer overflows, restoring fisheries and other projects can make a huge difference particularly in low-income communities that have been neglected for too long — and have too often been the site of incinerators, landfills and other environmental nuisances.

Protect Safe Drinking Water.Forty million people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water, and communities across Chicagoland suffer from old, crumbling water systems. The federal government used to pay as much as 63% of the costs for clean water infrastructure. That share has now dropped to 9%, with the resulting burden hitting hardest on low-income and minority communities. What’s needed is an investment of $20 billion each year over the next five years — the potential stimulus package is a vehicle to fill this need.

Restore and strengthen Clean Water Act protections:In 2019, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) erased limits on development and on the use of harmful chemicals, allowing hazardous discharges with no permits in many wetlands and other waterways. A new leadership team at EPA must re-establish these guardrails to ensure that the Clean Water Act protects our upstream water supply that feeds the Great Lakes.

These aren’t the only issues that the new administration can and should address, PFASs (the “forever chemicals), toxic algal blooms (like what coats the western basin of Lake Erie each summer) and ballast water discharges (which brought us zebra and quagga mussels) are also ripe for collaborative action.

As our new president works to unite a divided nation, a dose of Midwest-style common sense can be a useful tool. Protecting and restoring the Great Lakes is a real-life example of how working together — across party lines and state borders, and with equity and justice as a driving force — can deliver concrete results and perhaps even some national healing.

Mike Shriberg, PhD, is the Great Lakes Regional Executive Director of the National Wildlife Federation and a lecturer at the University of Michigan.

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