Report says Great Lakes cleanup would boost economy 9-07

By John Flesher
Traverse City, Michigan (AP)
A proposed restoration of the Great Lakes would generate at least $50 billion in economic gains – twice as much as the cleanup would cost, according to a report issued Wednesday.

The analysis by the Brookings Institution said healing the ecologically ailing lakes would help industries such as tourism and outdoor recreation. It also would boost property values, reduce wastewater treatment costs and attract new residents.

In addition to such long-term benefits, pumping government money into the region for the cleanup would have a temporary ripple effect worth $30 billion to $50 billion as contractors pay workers and make purchases, said economists with the research and policy institute in Washington, D.C.

“These restoration activities are not just nice things to do for the environment,” said John Austin, a senior fellow with Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. Cleaning up the Great Lakes, he said, “will be a jobs engine.”

Aside from showing that environmental protection doesn’t necessarily require economic sacrifice, the report illustrates how government spending on improved water quality is worth the initial price, said Andy Buchsbaum, co-chairman of Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

“This investment pays off and it pays off quickly,” he said.

Scientists have warned that the Great Lakes, which make up 90 percent of the nation’s surface fresh water and nearly 20 percent of the worldwide supply, are verging on ecological breakdown. They are suffering from centuries of toxic pollution, wildlife habitat loss and other human-caused stresses.

The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration – a partnership of government agencies, business and environmental groups, Indian tribes and other interests – developed a wide-ranging restoration blueprint in 2005. Its estimated price tag was $20 billion, which the Brookings report said has since increased to $26 billion.

Nearly half the money would pay to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities blamed for dumping untreated sewage into the lakes, prompting beach closures in some cities.

Among other proposals: cleansing heavily polluted sites; restoring wetlands; preventing release of toxic chemicals; restoring habitat; and halting exotic species invasions.

Congress has appropriated money for parts of the plan, including sediment removal from contaminated harbors. Bills have been introduced for other projects, such as a barrier to keep the dreaded Asian carp from reaching Lake Michigan.

The Brookings economists said the timetable for reaping the expected benefits from the plan would depend on how quickly it is implemented. The 2005 proposal urged doing so within five years.

The economists measured the possible benefits in two ways.

First, they estimated the yield from specific improvements. For example, they predicted a payoff of $6.5 billion to $11.8 billion from growth in tourism, fishing and recreation such as swimming and birdwatching. Simply reducing beach closures and advisories would generate up to $190 million, they said.

Cleaning tainted sediments in hot spots known as “areas of concern” would make nearby residential areas more desirable and valuable, the report said.

It warned that fish populations could fall 25 to 50 percent in the next two decades unless water quality improves.

Using a second method of measuring potential gains, the economists projected that cleanup activities would cause value of residential property to jump 10 percent near the lakes and 1 to 2 percent in lakefront cities.

Combined with surging commercial property values in the area, the total dividend again would exceed $50 billion, the report said.

And it predicted additional windfalls that could not be calculated, such as retaining talented workers and high-paying jobs.

The analysis should help make the case for greater federal support of the cleanup, said members of the region’s congressional delegation.

“Those of us working on Great Lakes restoration have always known that there is a huge economic benefit to protecting beaches, preserving habitat, and cleaning up polluted areas,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich. “Now we have firm data to support that claim.”

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