Could a new federal agency revive the Great Lakes region?

Lake Erie lakefront. Photo by Dave Buckle, via Flickr Commons

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.

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.”

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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’s talking about it with other lawmakers in 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.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., (D-Mich.) — who co-chairs the House Great Lakes Task Force with Kaptur and U.S. Reps. David Joyce, R-Ohio, and Bill Huizenga, R-Mich.,  — said in an interview 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.

In February, the Democratic-controlled 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. Its fate in the GOP-led U.S. Senate is unclear.

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 revitalizing an entire region. Instead, she looks to federal models like the Bureau of Reclamation in the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

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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 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.

In a column last year, the Detroit chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America called for a “Great Lakes Authority” that would bring jobs and economic development to the Midwest.

Kaptur doesn’t know what such an entity for the Great Lakes 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,” she 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.

The region holds nearly all of the nation’s fresh surface water and is known for its higher education system and its manufacturing industries.

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 they did in the country overall, the report found.

The region began to recover in 2010, but has struggled with income and revenue losses, as well as with poverty, violence and legacy manufacturing sites.

Racial segregation also is a major problem in the region, according to Erika Poethig, a vice president at the Urban Institute and an author of its Great Lakes report. Any federal investments in the region must be tied to state and local commitments to eliminate barriers caused by segregation and ensure equitable distribution of resources, she said.

Utility costs are 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 stay-home orders.

Over the next 20 years, the region needs nearly $200 billion to repair and replace crumbling water infrastructure, according to Healing Our Waters — Great Lakes Coalition in Ann Arbor. 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.”