Is Illinois lawmakers’ shot at Great Lakes sewage substantive?

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Four members of the Illinois Congressional delegation recently took a swing at the biggest problem the Great Lakes face – the dumping of sewage into our waterways.

An estimated 24 billion gallons of sewage is discharged into the Great Lakes annually, according to a press release from Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

Kirk and fellow Republican Rep. Robert Dold and Democrats Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Dan Lipinski introduced the Great Lakes Water Protection Act. The Illinois lawmakers crafted the bill to reduce sewage discharges.

It’s about time Congress picked up the pace on tackling the biggest problem facing the Great Lakes.

Delayed result

But the deadline the act sets for municipalities to cease sewage dumping is 2031. Talk about kicking the can down the road. Plus, except for fines when violators don’t meet deadlines for compliance, there is no funding in the bill.  Everyone knows that fixing our aging sewer infrastructure will require a multi-billion dollar expenditure over an extended period.

This could be one of those bills about appearances. You know, a bill that gives the appearance of doing something but in reality doesn’t accomplish much.

Red flags are everywhere.

A pretty setting for an ugly problem

First, there was a press conference at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium with Lake Michigan as the backdrop. Illinois politicians love to meet at Shedd Aquarium when they talk about Great Lakes is

sues. It’s a beautiful setting, though given the topic it would have made more sense to have it at a sewage treatment plant.

Durbin mentioned the outrage citizens expressed a few years ago when British Petroleum proposed increasing pollution to Lake Michigan.  The oil company has nothing to do with sewage dumping so that comment smacks of pandering. Everyone pays attention when a politician mentions BP and water in the same sentence.

There was a lot of talk about bipartisanship.

The reality is that these Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much right now but they feel obligated to show a measure of working together.  What better way to demonstrate that than by agreeing to do something for the Great Lakes. No one is against cleaning up the Great Lakes, at least in theory.

Besides, supporting this bill is easy because it doesn’t require the federal government to spend any money, a big taboo right now.

There was something else missing.

State borders don’t confine sewage

Sewage dumping into the Great Lakes is a problem for all the states. Where were legislators from outside Illinois, especially Michigan and Detroit?  After all, Kirk has singled out the Motor City as the biggest problem, saying it is responsible for half of the entire problem.

Unfortunately this was an Illinois-only show.

Before working myself into a skeptical frenzy, I decided to get a reading from an expert.

Thom Cmar, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Chicago office, is cautiously optimistic. Cmar supports the legislation and is pleased to see that Illinois members of Congress recognize that more needs to be done to reduce sewage dumping.

“The Clean Water Act is now in its fifth decade but persistent problems like sewage discharges continue to hold us back from reaching the goal that the law sets of making all of America’s waters fishable and swimmable,” Cmar said.

OK, his support offers a little assurance, but what about Illinois going it alone?

Cmar had advice for Great Lakes legislators:

“We are hopeful that the bill put forth by the Illinois delegation will garner true bipartisan support, including from Congressional members in Michigan and other Great Lakes states. We have more to gain as a region from working across intra-regional and intra-party divides to address critical threats to our shared resources than any one state or party does going it alone.”

That’s good advice for Durbin and Kirk. Why not reach out to Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, especially since Kirk made a point of identifying Detroit as the biggest problem? That would be a true bipartisan collaboration.

Until they do that outreach their action sounds like, I’ve identified a problem and it’s your problem.

Looking for leadership

Durbin and Kirk have historically been supportive of Great Lakes issues in Congress, however both talk a better game than they play.

Durbin will support Great Lakes legislation but he doesn’t really lead on the issue.  Given his leadership role in the Senate, he has his hands full so that is unlikely to change. Kirk is new to the Senate and has a chance to be a Great Lakes champion. It’s there for the taking as Republicans have a Great Lakes void to fill with the retirement of Sen. George Voinovich from Ohio.

But that involves doing more than introducing soft legislation and holding high profile press conferences. He’ll have to be willing to advocate for spending with his Republican colleagues who are outside the region and twist a few arms behind the scenes. That’s the test.

I’d like to be more optimistic about the legislation introduced by the Illinois contingent, but until deed matches press conference rhetoric, I remain a skeptic.

I hope I’m wrong.

4 thoughts on “Is Illinois lawmakers’ shot at Great Lakes sewage substantive?

  1. I think that you guys should for get about it becuase it is not going to work there is to much poop

  2. Another part of the problem is that there is an influential political class in this country that benefits more from periodic wars than from infrastructure improvements. Whether or not Kirk and Durbin are successful in resetting the clock to 2031 for clean water, you can bet the war mongers will have found another way to kiss away a trillion more dollars long before then, after which they’ll complain (again) that the country is too broke for infrastructure spending.

  3. Water is replacing oil as the most coveted resource. Good water quality and quantity are economic drivers for Great Lakes States.
    If we were to poll the people in the Great Lakes about dumping sewage in the water we drink, there would be support to stop the practice.
    Instead, the argument is usually framed around increases in sewer rates.
    Toledo had a vote on whether to issue bonds to upgrade the sewer infrastructure and it passed. But even though the people spoke to fund the bonds, Toledo asked USEPA for a four year extension and got it and is now asking for another extension.
    One of the ways we came out of the Great Deperession was with the WPA program and putting in infrastructure.
    Repairing/replacing infrastructure yields jobs and helps Great Lakes waters.
    Let’s not forget that although Detroit is at the top of the list for upgrading the aged sewer system – Chicago should be there too with their lack of secondary treatment that gets lumped in with the Asian Carp issue.
    The problem all of us have to help the water is that politicians do not value the water and support making sure water quantity and quality are there to drive the economy.

  4. Can you say “shovel-ready project”?

    Throughout the Great Lakes area, many thousands of people are jobless and looking for work. A massive rebuild of our aging and crumbling sewer infrastructure – including the (tragically) combined sewer systems that spew raw sewage during and after major rain and snow-melt events – could put these able-bodied folks to work. A project like this would also give a boost to the manufacturing sector, the engineering sector, and supply chain for the goods and materials to complete the mission. Those who would be employed would once again be contributing positively to the economy, rather than being a drain on it.

    This would not be a “busy work” scheme, as it’s not simply digging ditches and filling them back up again. Well, actually it is, but not until there are new sewer lines in them! A project like this would redirect huge dollars into our national and regional economies while also bringing a positive and long-lasting benefit to our failing (or failed) infrastructure.

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