At the [ economist ]
IT IS high season for a sliver of sand in Portage, Indiana. A pretty visitors’ centre sells ice cream. Lake Michigan shimmers in the sun. And beside the beach is a roaring steel mill. Swimmers enter the water at their own risk.
The Great Lakes—Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario and Longfellow’s “shining Big-Sea-Water”, Lake Superior—comprise one-fifth of the world’s surface fresh water. They have also endured centuries of abuse. But advocates are cheerful these days. Barack Obama’s budget proposes $475m for restoration. In June he appointed a Great Lakes tsar, Cameron Davis, to begin work in July. There is much to do
he 1970s brought reform, such as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement that sought to restore the lakes’ “chemical, physical and biological integrity”. But problems remain. Sewage systems continue to overflow, forcing many beaches to close. Levels of some toxins in fish have declined, but others pose new risks. Atlantic freighters still bring in foreign species—there are now 185. Regulations are tangled. In 2007 a refinery in Indiana received a permit to increase discharges into Lake Michigan. Only public uproar prevented it.
Better co-ordination would help. The Great Lakes region includes two Canadian provinces (Ontario and Quebec) and eight American states—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. A report in 2003 counted 148 federal and 51 state programmes to restore the lakes. The region’s many swing states ensure periodic attention. In 2004 George Bush ordered a broad restoration plan to be drawn up. Implementing it would cost more than $20 billion. Little money, however, has been provided. It is still unclear who is in charge.
This may begin to change. On June 13th the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, announced that a treaty governing the waters between America and Canada would be updated. Mr Obama’s $475m would be the largest single investment of any president yet. Mr Davis, a respected advocate, may bring order to disjointed programmes.
Just as promising, restoration is increasingly seen as an economic boon, not a drain. The Brookings Institution, a think-tank, found that spending $26 billion to clean the lakes would bring benefits of at least $80 billion. As manufacturing dwindles, the lakes may attract new firms and workers. Chicago’s twinkling lakefront has been an important draw, a taste of the Mediterranean in the Midwest. Indiana’s shore is still lined with steel plants and refineries. But Portage’s beach, which opened last year, is the first step in an effort to reclaim the lakefront. The new plans are a nudge in the right direction.