A new federal agency to revive the Great Lakes region? 

Light house shore, Lake Michigan (photo by Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay)
Light house shore, Lake Michigan (photo by Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay)

WASHINGTON — The Great Lakes region took a beating last decade with the collapse of its manufacturing sector. 

The region’s economy has been in recovery — but the pandemic threatens to deal another devastating blow.

Unemployment is spiking and cities and states are facing massive revenue losses, which have the potential to destabilize the region’s renowned higher education system and other publicly funded programs and services. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate reached nearly 15% in April, an historic high.

A veteran Democratic lawmaker is devising a plan for a massive influx of federal aid to boost the region. 

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), co-chair of the Great Lakes Task Force, is exploring the possibility of a new federal entity to revitalize the region — a project that could mirror the scale of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for the eight states that border the Great Lakes.

“Why is the Great Lakes always in the sink?” she said in an interview. “Why are we always forgotten? We have all these mammoth power needs and water needs, and the federal government just sits back and sort of turns its back on us. For me, that day is over.”

A senior member of the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee and chair of its subcommittee on energy and water development, Kaptur is sussing out support for the concept among lawmakers from the region and leaders in Congress. 

She may try to include the concept in a larger coronavirus recovery package, if and when Congress takes one up.

Rep. Debbie Dingell — a Michigan Democrat who co-chairs the House Great Lakes Task Force with Kaptur and Republicans Bill Huizenga of Michigan and David Joyce of Ohio — said that federal lawmakers from the region work closely together and are exploring ways to support and protect it. She did not comment specifically about Kaptur’s concept.

Wisconsin Reps. Ron Kind (D), Gwen Moore (D), Mike Gallagher (R) and Glenn Grothman (R) also sit on the task force, while Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) belongs to a Senate Great Lakes group.

In February, the House passed Joyce’s bill to renew and increase funding over five years for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a multiagency program created a decade ago to preserve and protect the lakes. 

Seven of the state’s House lawmakers voted for it; the state’s other seat — now held by GOP Rep. Tom Tiffany — was vacant at the time.  

The bill’s fate in the U.S. Senate is unclear. Baldwin has signed on; Sen. Ron Johnson (R) hasn’t.

The passage was praised by members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation from both sides of the aisle. 

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wisc.) cosponsored the bill.  “In Northeast Wisconsin, the Great Lakes are critical to our economy and way of life,” said Gallagher. “The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has proven itself not only to be an efficient use of taxpayer dollars, but also an important way to preserve our waters for generations to come. I’m glad we’re taking bipartisan action to dedicate more resources to this vital program.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), who is also on the task force, sent a letter shortly after that bill’s House passage requesting full 2021 funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees environmental and interior funding calling the program successful and “results-drive.”

“We are pleased that the Administration agreed to bipartisan requests from Congress to include at least $320 million in its FY 2021 budget request for this important program, which supplies drinking water to millions of people and contributes billions of dollars to the economy each year,” she wrote in a letter sent with her colleagues.

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Advocates for the region are also asking Congress to target the Great Lakes region in coronavirus relief bills. Funds are needed to help modernize water infrastructure, increase access to safe drinking water, prevent erosion and maintain navigation systems, a coalition of nine organizations wrote in a recent letter to congressional leaders. 

Administering funds through existing programs could quickly spur job growth and economic activity in the region, they said. 

Great Lakes Authority?

Kaptur says a new entity may be needed to support long-term revitalization and reclamation throughout the Great Lakes region.

Such an agency would support access not only to safe drinking and wastewater but also to other utilities and clean up old and obsolete industrial and defense sites, which she said drag down the region’s economy.

Existing agencies and programs address various aspects of these issues at the federal, regional and state levels, she said.

But she fears none is up to the monumental task of addressing them comprehensively and revitalizing an entire regional economy. Instead, she looks to federal models like the Bureau of Reclamation in the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Congress created the reclamation bureau at the beginning of the 20th century to undertake water storage and irrigation projects to help settlers farm — or “reclaim” — the American West. The bureau, perhaps best known for construction of the Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border, operates and maintains water and electricity projects in 17 western states.

In 1933 — at the height of the Great Depression — Congress launched the Tennessee Valley Authority to support impoverished mountain communities in seven southeastern states. The agency — a federally owned power company — was created to provide electricity to rural and underserved areas and address other problems such as flooding, erosion and migration. 

Kaptur doesn’t know what such an entity would be called — perhaps the Bureau of Great Lakes Restoration — or how it would work.

But she’s prepared to move forward. “You’ve got to start with a big idea that could be transformational,” Kaptur said. “Other regions of America have figured it out. So should we.”

The ‘Third Coast’

The Great Lakes region — also known as the country’s “Third Coast” — stretches from Minnesota to New York and runs through Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as well as parts of Canada. Wisconsin’s eastern border runs along Lake Michigan and its northern one borders Lake Superior.

The region holds nearly all of the nation’s fresh surface water and is known as its industrial heartland, thanks to its manufacturing industries. In Wisconsin, manufacturing accounts for nearly a fifth of the state’s gross state product and more than 16% of its workforce.

The sector collapsed in the early 2000s. From 2000 to 2010, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin lost 1.6 million manufacturing jobs, a 35% decline, according to a 2017 report by the Urban Institute. 

Median household incomes in all but one of those states — Minnesota — dropped more sharply that decade than the country overall, the report found. 

The region began to recover in 2010 but still struggles from income and revenue losses, as well as from segregation, poverty, violence and legacy manufacturing sites.

Utility costs are also crushing consumers, Kaptur noted — a problem exacerbated by the loss of jobs and income amid the pandemic. Access to safe and affordable drinking water has taken on added urgency under shelter-in-place orders.

Over the next 20 years, Wisconsin needs $15 billion to repair and replace crumbling water infrastructure, and the region as a whole needs nearly $200 billion, according to Healing Our Waters — Great Lakes Coalition in Ann Arbor, Mich. The group aims to secure and fund a sustainable Great Lakes restoration plan.

In addition to supporting the public and environmental health, such funds would stimulate the region’s economy, according to the group’s director, Laura Rubin.

Ultimately, the region needs more robust federal investment soon, Kaptur said. “If we’re going to have any kind of industrial America … we’re going to have to modernize more quickly.”