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Study: Great Lakes restoration more than pays for itself

A backhoe works on a $1.2 million St. Louis River fish habitat and public access restoration project in Duluth in this 2015 photo. A study released Tuesday found that every dollar spent on Great Lakes restoration returns $3.35 to the local economy. ( file / News Tribune)

A report released Tuesday claims federal dollars invested in Great Lakes restoration efforts are returning far more back to the regional economy.

The research, led by the University of Michigan's Research Seminar in Quantitative Economics and reviewed by a panel of economists and other experts from outside the Great Lakes region, found that every $1 spent on Great Lakes restoration will return an average of $3.35 of additional economic activity through 2036.

The study, coordinated by the Great Lakes Commission and the Council of Great Lakes Industries, said the return will be even greater, topping $4 for every dollar spent, in Rust Belt communities like Detroit and Buffalo.

The study found restoration money was doubly beneficial — not just restoring the lake region's environment but spurring jobs as would a traditional government stimulus program. The jobs come not just from the cleanup work but also new spending on areas that are again open for tourism, recreation and other waterfront development.

Restoration spending is even increasing home values in Great Lakes communities, the study found, and is encouraging a generation of younger people to stay in lake communities, or move there, rather than the population flight out of the region previously seen for decades.

"This study describes what we already know in facts and figures — cleaning up legacy pollution and restoring aquatic habitat on the Great Lakes isn't only good for the environment, it creates jobs and fuels the regional economy," said John Linc Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and current chairman of the Great Lakes Commission, in a statement. "It's a positive legacy that states and our partner organizations can leave for future generations. The Great Lakes states are ready and excited to continue this critical work until the job is finished."

Congress approved the first Great Lakes Restoration Initiative spending in 2010 and has since spent some $2.5 billion through 2017 to restore and protect the lakes — including efforts to battle invasive species, restore fish and wildlife habitat, remove contaminated sediments and work to keep urban and agricultural runoff out of the lakes. Congress approved another $300 million for fiscal 2018 and supporters are hoping for at least that much in the 2019 budget now being developed in Washington.

Millions of dollars have been spent in the Twin Ports, for example, to remove wood waste and contaminated sediment along the St. Louis River estuary and Duluth-Superior harbor, in the hoeps the area will eventually be removed from the list of contaminated hotspots across the region.

Kathryn Buckner, president of the Council of Great Lakes Industries, said healthy Great Lakes are "critical to the continued success of our region's manufacturing and industry sectors. This study shows that the (restoration spending) not only is improving the ecosystem, but it also has generated and will continue to generate economic activity in the region."