It takes more than money to restore a watershed

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People wonder what the post-election mood in Washington will mean for the Great Lakes and rightfully so: President Obama’s effort to jumpstart long-overdue cleanup could be in trouble.

Funded at $475 million its first year, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative set the administration off on a respectable journey toward reaching Obama’s 2008 campaign pledge of $5 billion in new Great Lakes recovery efforts within a decade.

The political winds shifted. Money got tighter.

So the administration scaled back its request to $300 million for the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

That’s even less than the average amount needed on an annual basis to fulfill the campaign pledge.

But, yeah – even $300 million is nothing to sneeze at.

Dare I say it? Insiders seem to have a lot of anxiety these days, wondering if the new Congress will set the budgetary needle closer to zero than $300 million, notwithstanding the noble lobbying efforts of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

The coalition, formed in response to the former Bush administration’s failure to fund an unprecedented $20 billion Great Lakes needs inventory, now cites 115 Great Lakes area zoos, aquariums, museums, outdoor recreation, conservation, and environmental groups as its members.

All of this usual talk about how much, who, and when got me thinking: It’s all about the money, right?

Yes and no.

Money talks and – to butcher an old cliche – the bowel movement of a male bovine walks, right?

I’ll grant you the hard reality is that Great Lakes restoration, from better sewage plants to the removal of PCBs (cancer-causing industrial lubricants called polychlorinated biphenyls) from soil will cost billions and billions of dollars basinwide.

But if the lakes are to ever reach their potential, there’s got to be more than just money.

There’s got to be pride and a sense of wonderment, something other than a nonchalant mode or a catch-me-if-you-can attitude.

Let me explain.

Downtown Cleveland, as just about everyone knows, is kind of the anecdotal poster child for ecological recovery. When the Cuyahoga River, which flows through downtown Cleveland and empties into Lake Erie, was so oily it caught fire in 1969, the nation was horrified.

The landmark Clean Water Act, the advent of much of today’s modern sewage treatment, was passed.

But it’s been explained to me that, as the Cuyahoga and the Lake Erie shoreline gradually improved in downtown Cleveland, developers began having projects face the water instead of turning away from it.

A subtle distinction, but an important one.

Now comes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a new report detailing how 38 projects along the Detroit River, in southeastern Michigan and southwestern Ontario, were developed over the past 10 years with “soft shoreline engineering” techniques that effectively incorporated water and marshy areas into them like aquatic front porches.

For more on this, see an inventory and Web site compiled by the University of Windsor.

Several are parks. Some are parcels of land owned by DTE Energy and U.S. Steel.

And perhaps it’s more coincidental than intentional.

But the point is that people have to embrace the resource, not just throw money at it.

Historically, industries were built facing away from the Detroit River.

Consider that 31 of the 32 miles of Detroit River shoreline in the United States was once hardened with concrete or steel, a practice known as hard shoreline engineering.

That virtually eliminated critical shoreline habitat for fish and wildlife in that area, contributing to a 97 percent loss of coastal wetland habitat along the Detroit River.

“Today, there is growing interest in reclaiming urban waterfronts with new front porches,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said. “Urban planners and developers are using ecological principles and practices to reduce erosion and achieve stability and safety of shorelines, while enhancing habitat, improving aesthetics, enhancing urban quality of life, increasing waterfront property values, and even saving money when compared to installing concrete breakwalls or steel sheet piling. Ecologists refer to this as soft shoreline engineering.”

Waterfront porches for people and wildlife, whether they be a combination of boardwalks and wetlands or something else, is an intriguing idea if you accept the notion that people in homes with front porches seem more engaged in their neighborhoods.

People seem to be embracing a return to the front-porch concept with their homes – looking after each other more – following years in which society grew more distant from and lost touch with one another with their prefabricated condos and gated communities.

Makes sense that the same psychological comfort zone could apply to the environment.

“Just as house porches can help promote sustainability in neighborhoods, waterfront porches can help promote
sustainability of rivers in urban areas,” the federal agency said.

John Hartig, manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge (the only one in North America shared by two countries), notes that soft engineered shorelines “are critically important because they can provide spawning and nursery habitat for many fishes, and can provide shelter, resting areas, food, and a chance to grow a little bigger and stronger on a larval fish’s trip
downstream to Lake Erie.”

They also help reconnect people with the natural world.

And they can have economic advantages.

According to Environment Canada, property values are generally higher in neighborhoods closest to greenways, natural areas, parks, and other gathering places.

Tom Henry covers the environment for The (Toledo) Blade and writes an occasional column for Great Lakes Echo.

3 thoughts on “It takes more than money to restore a watershed

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention It takes more than money to restore a watershed | Great Lakes Echo --

  2. It is at the design stage of projects where the big decisions are made. We need more people to be “at the table” where we can advocate for shorelines that are friendly to both wildlife and people. Internationally renowned designer William McDonnough has stated that if design is the signal of human intention then we must continually ask ourselves — What are our intentions for our children, for the children of all species, for all time? Clearly, it is time for more progressive shoreine designs that offer greater environmental, societal, and economic beneifts! Keep up the great work Tom!

  3. Great article! Embracing the resource requires folks to be educated and aware of resources and unfortunately those education programs are the first to be cut from budgets when pockets become less fat. Decision makers need to become better versed in natural resources. I often hear people lumping anything associated with the environment to be “green” or “tree hugger”…….How to get rid of that simple and dangerous mentality is the big question!

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