The Case For Farm Bill Conservation Programs in the Great Lakes Region

03-21-2012 // John Carey
The Case for Farm Bill Conservation Programs in the Great Lakes Region

Not only do conservation programs help protect the enormously valuable Great Lakes environment, their economic payoff is compelling. They help maintain multi-billion dollar tourism, recreation and shipping industries. They help save millions of dollars because of avoided environmental programs and crop insurance payments. And they create jobs. But these programs can also be improved to get more benefits from each federal dollar spent.

Download the full report: The Case for Farm Bill Conservation Programs in the Great Lakes Region (pdf)

From Lake Superior’s rugged shores and crystal clear waters to the towering sand dunes of Lake Michigan and Lake Erie’s thriving walleye fishery, the Great Lakes are a national treasure — and an economic engine. The lakes provide drinking water to more than 30 million people. They carry iron ore, grain, and countless other raw materials and products of industry and agriculture. They offer unparalleled opportunities for boating, fishing, swimming, and other activities. They support tens of thousands of businesses, from tiny marinas in Milwaukee to grand hotels on Mackinaw Island. More than 1.5 million jobs depend directly on the lakes — and the region offers a quality of life crucial to attracting both companies and skilled workers.

That’s why it’s so vital to keep the Great Lakes healthy. And fortunately, the federal government has recognized the importance of the region and the need to protect its environment. In 2009, an 11-agency task force created an action plan for a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) to tackle such problems as pollution, aquatic invasive species, runoff from farms and cities and the loss of wetlands and wildlife habitats. The federal government backed the initiative with more than $1 billion in funding. “We’re committed to creating a new standard of care that will leave the Great Lakes better for the next generation,” explains EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, chair of the GLRI task force.

Great Lakes restoration projects are already producing results. Chicago’s beaches are cleaner and safer, Lake Michigan is being restocked with sturgeon, and steps are being taken to reduce the pollution flowing into Lake Superior in Duluth. Whitefish, sturgeon and walleye are thriving in the Detroit River, which for decades was too polluted to support desirable species. Communities around the region are reconnecting to the Great Lakes and the rivers which feed the lakes.

Less obvious, however, is how the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative dovetails with federal conservation programs. In fact, big chunks of the GLRI money are being delivered through agriculture programs in the Farm Bill, which pay farmers to set aside fields as wetlands or conservation reserves, or to better manage their fertilizer and waste. These steps bring many environmental benefits, from creating valuable wildlife habitat and open space to keeping nutrient pollution from reaching creeks and streams, thus improving water quality in rivers and the Great Lakes.

All told, the eight Great Lakes states receive more than $500 million per year in Farm Bill conservation money. Those dollars not only make the environment healthier and improve people’s quality of life, they also pay off economically. Less pollution and sediment from farms, for instance, means lower costs for water treatment and dredging, while cleaner lakes mean more money in the pockets of everyone from fishing boat captains to hotel managers. Still, the Farm Bill conservation programs could be improved to get even more bang for the buck. Here, in the report that follows, is their story.

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