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Benefits of cleaning Great Lakes cited; $26 billion plan would bring in more, experts say

By Dan EganMilwaukee Journal Sentinel

Sept. 6, 2007 - A road map to restore the Great Lakes has been circulating in Congress for nearly two years, but so far lawmakers have largely balked at the route.

Money is a big reason. Twenty-six billion dollars is the estimated cost to clean up the lakes' toxic messes, cork the chronic sewer overflows, restore trashed wetlands and stem the onslaught of invasive species, among other things.

But an independent panel of economic experts said Wednesday that the restoration plan shouldn't be viewed as an expense, but as an economic opportunity. They maintain that fixing the world's largest freshwater system would create an estimated $50 billion in long-term economic benefits.

The reason: Healthy waters are not only good for the people and wildlife that depend on them. In this increasingly thirsty world, they are also good at attracting investment.

"These restoration activities are not just a nice thing to do for the environment," said study co-author John C. Austin, a senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank contracted to do analysis. "They are essential things to do for job creation in (the) region."

The gains would primarily be tied to increases in tourism, property values, fishing and other recreational activities.

The report also estimates the region would get a short-term boost of at least another $30 billion simply from the restoration dollars being injected into the regional economy, but study authors noted that such a benefit would occur with any public works project of that size.

The report is based on the benefits of funding a Great Lakes restoration plan created after an executive order signed by President Bush in 2004 in the heat of his re-election bid.

Released in 2005 The plan, put together by a group of environmentalists, scientists, civic and tribal leaders, among others, was released with great fanfare in late 2005. The hope was the Great Lakes region could persuade the federal government to help fund a restoration plan similar to one under way in the Florida Everglades. But the cash never came.

Conservationists say too much has been made about its cost. On Wednesday, they said it was time to start talking about the benefits.

"It is a large initial outlay, but there will be economic returns that far exceed the costs," said Andy Buchsbaum, executive director for the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office.

The restoration plan includes more than $13 billion for sewer system upgrades, $1.6 billion to improve drinking water quality by protecting its sources and about $800 million to clean up contaminated sediments. The plan also calls for spending up to nearly $1 billion to restore up to 550,000 acres of wetlands.

The funding likely would come from a combination of federal, state and local governments.

Authors of the economic analysis said the clock is ticking.

"The report makes it clear that investing in the Great Lakes is a wise investment now, but the longer we wait to restore the Great Lakes, the higher the price tag will be," Austin said.

Bringing issue to election Funding for the report came from The Joyce Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Consumers Energy Foundation and Dow Chemical Foundation.

The report was released the day before the kickoff of the third annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Chicago; the event is expected to draw about 250 scientists, government workers, environmentalists, tribal members and public officials.

One of the topics at the two-day conference will be how to make the restoration plan an issue in next year's federal elections.

Great Lakes advocates say it is an issue both parties should be paying attention to. "If the lakes are sick, our economy gets sick," Buchsbaum said.

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