In the wee hours of December 10th, among all the partisan gridlock, Congress passed monumental safeguards for Lake Erie, the Great Lakes, and the people of Ohio. Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN) passed the Senate before the Senate recessed for the year, sending WIIN to the President’s desk for his signature.
WIIN included key issues that the Ohio Environmental Council has been working on for a number of years, including a provision, sponsored by Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Youngstown), which creates a full-time federal position within the U.S. EPA whose sole job is to focus on reducing toxic algae in the Great Lakes. The OEC recognized the need for this position and played a key role as a technical advisor to Congressman Ryan in the crafting of the legislation. With the development of the new HAB coordinator there will be additional oversight and coordination between Canada and the U.S.; federal, state, Tribal, and local governments; academics; and other stakeholders.
The OEC, as a Healing Our Waters - Great Lakes Coalition Governance Board Member, worked with our Congressional members on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers, as well as partners across the Great Lakes, to solidify the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative as a $300 million program through 2021. This provision, championed by Congressman David Joyce (R-Russell Township) is widely recognized as a penny wise program - for every dollar spent restoring our Great Lakes, local economies reap $2-$10 in return. Since 2010, the GLRI has invested more than $102 million through 200 projects in Ohio to restore Lake Erie and the results are impressive; fish returning to rivers like Ashtabula; reduction of toxic-causing algae flowing into the Lake; and clean-up of toxic sediments. The GLRI, however, will need to be reauthorized in 2021 and even though it has been authorized as a program for five years, each year the OEC, with our partners, will need to advocate for full funding of the GLRI. Thankfully this program experiences strong bi-partisan support among the Great Lakes Congressional delegation.
The third provision requires the Army Corps of Engineers to adhere to state water quality standards, preventing the Army Corps from dumping sediment into Lake Erie without the approval of the Ohio EPA. In 2014, the OEC caught wind of the Army Corps wanting to dump toxic sediment from the Cuyahoga River and Cleveland Harbor into Lake Erie. This snowballed into a legal battle between the state and the Army Corps. Working with the Cleveland Port Authority and Senator Portman’s office, the Army Corps will no longer be able to strong arm the state into allowing the Army Corps to dump polluted sediment into Lake Erie.
Also included in WIIN, were two important provisions protecting Ohioans from lead in drinking water. One, co-sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), creates a new federal grant program to help daycare centers and school districts test their drinking water for potential lead contamination and federal aid to communities facing lead crises. Both the provision co-sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown and one co-sponsored by Senator Rob Portman provides funding for communities facing lead crises, water infrastructure programs, and health programs to prevent and treat lead exposure.
No Ohioan should wonder if they can drink their tap water, swim in the Lake or rivers, and eat the fish. These provisions help further safeguard those rights, our health, and our economy. Lake Erie and all Ohioans should feel good about ending the year on a high note, one of further protections for our drinking water and Lake Erie.
The OEC asks all of you to join us in thanking our Congressional members, particularly Senators Brown and Portman and Representatives Bob Gibbs, David Joyce, Marcy Kaptur, and Tim Ryan for their work in crafting provisions and passing these safeguards to protect Ohioans from polluted water.