Investment in Great Lakes Good for Economy and Environment
by Rich Bowman, Michigan Director of Government Relations
When President Obama recommended $475million for Great Lakes restoration in his proposed 2010federal budget, elected officials and community leaders scrambled to determine how the money would be spent. While those details have yet to be unveiled, it's clear this action is intended to make the future health of the Great Lakes a national priority similar to the Everglades and ChesapeakeBay. If Congress agrees with the president, it will represent a down payment on what is needed to restore and protect the world's largest freshwater system, a resource used by more than 40million people in the U.S.and Canada for drinking water. While strong agreement exists to clean-up toxic hot spots or upgrade urban sewers, those activities alone leave us far short of a healthy, functional freshwatersystem. Our leaders can learn from some examples outside the Great Lakes basin, including New York's Catskill Mountains, the source of drinking water for New York City. When the Big Apple needed to upgrade its water filtration plants in1997, they found that aging agricultural infrastructure, development pressure and land-use practices in the Catskills were the primary source of watercontaminants. Rather than spending billions for new water-treatment plants, they created the Watershed Agricultural Council to engage local action. Through the council, New York City has invested $350million in land protection, upgrades in agricultural waste-handling systems, and training for loggers and farmers on controlling soil erosion. The experiment resulted in cleaner water, more habitat for wildlife, economically competitive farms and increasedtourism. The same can be done in the GreatLakes. Investing in nature can pay back benefits far beyond the dirt or trees protected through land acquisition or conservation easements. By protecting habitat, we protectlife. Restoring coastal wetlands and marshes helps save estuaries providing food and spawning habitat for fish, and also gives us a buffer for land activities that pollute water. Saving a forest and harvesting timber in a sustainable manner provides valuable wood products and jobs, allows the forest to filter water leading into the Great Lakes, and also helps clean our air and offset our carbonemissions. The Nature Conservancy continues to be in the land-protection business, but with our massive goal of making the Great Lakes the best managed freshwater resource system in the world, we have to think at a landscape scale and engage more partners. The Conservancy has recruited farmers in several states to change traditional agricultural methods to benefit land and profitability, while reducing negative impacts to nearbywater. One method involves conservation tillage, which reduces the number of times a tractor pulls equipment through a field. Conservation tillage minimizes soil disturbance, improves soil quality, and most importantly, decreases run-off and sedimentation into rivers, while improving rainwater absorption. Conservancy scientists calculate that for every 1,000acres converted to conservation tillage, an estimated 88million gallons of groundwater is replenished back into localwaterways. As the demand on freshwater increases globally, resource management practices developed in the Great Lakes will make a positive difference to thirsty people around theglobe. The Great Lakes are resilient, but they need our help. Like a good friend, they have given to us for more than three centuries, and have even endured some insults and "bad behavior" from us. But friendship is a two-way street, and it's time for all of us to step up, pay some debts and lend a helping hand to an oldfriend. The president's recommendation is a step in the right direction, and we hope the funding stretches far across our vast GreatLakes.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.