Making the Great Lakes Great Again

by Richard T. Stuebi

For as long as I can remember, Lake Erie — and by extension, all of the Great Lakes of North America — symbolized water pollution. Sure, it was much worse 40 years ago, when the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland caught fire, but the reputation lingers. (Remember the “Swill” skit on Saturday Night Live in the late ’70s?) Although the Great Lakes are a boater’s and fisher’s haven, for many people (myself included), the thought of bathing in the waters or drinking them untreated remains pretty unappealing.

This is truly a pity for the Midwest, because the Great Lakes represents one of the most fundamental assets that a region can offer: fresh water in enormous quantities. For those who’ve never seen the Great Lakes, they are misnamed: these are inland seas, not lakes. The Great Lakes hold 20% of the world’s freshwater. Pause and think about that for a minute.

In recent decades, there has been an increase in attention paid to remediating the Great Lakes. A unique multi-government collaboration launched in 1955, the Great Lakes Commission was formed to oversee issues spanning the multiple U.S. states and Canadian provinces depending upon the Great Lakes. Founded 40 years ago, the Alliance for the Great Lakes was an early voice advocating environmental improvement in the Great Lakes. Most substantively, the U.S. EPA leads the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which targets “the most significant problems in the region, including invasive aquatic species, non-point source pollution, and contaminated sediment.”

Recently, the Obama Administration announced a five-year $2.2 billion blueprint for cleaning up the Great Lakes, which aims by 2014 to (1) finish work at five “toxic hot spots” that have been known as problematic for two decades, (2) reduce the rate of new invasive species by 40%, (3) decrease phosphorous runoff measurably, and (4) protect about 100,000 wetland acres. (See article from Chicago Tribune.)

As the central feature of the industrial North American Midwest, which gave birth to the industrial era of the 20th Century, the Great Lakes were long taken advantage of — often without much respect — to achieve economic growth, increase standards of living, win wars, and establish the U.S. as the unparalleled leader in the world. $2.2 billion may sound like a lot of money, but it’s due time we give back to the Great Lakes, for all that they’ve given us.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.

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