Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday April 5th, 2012, 4:15pm

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Boosts Local Economy & Keeps Beaches Open

Fewer beaches in Illinois will be closed in upcoming summers and polluted waterways will be cleaned up as part of President Barack Obama’s plan to extend the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Obama’s pledge to further the program, which originated in 2009 and was set to expire in 2014, will mean more conservation groups and cities in the Great Lakes region will continue to receive money to preserve one of the country’s greatest assets, said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Brammeier said although Obama hasn’t specified the extended year of the program, his conversation about continuing to protect the Great Lakes is a step in the right direction, especially when other environmental programs and agencies are being cut.

“If we decide to cut these programs, what we are saying is we’re going to mortgage that liability for tomorrow, and end up paying a lot more down the line,” Brammeier said.

“This is not add-on funding. This is not beautification. This is repairing a century of damage. If we don’t do it now, we’re still going to have to do it next year, and it’s not going to be cheap.”

To date, Congress has already set aside $1 billion for the program, and Obama said he would pump in $300 million more, as part of his 2013 budget proposal he unveiled in February.

But it’s not all good news for the Great Lakes, Progress Illinois recently reported.

Also in Obama’s proposed 2013 budget is the elimination of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s $9.9 million Beach Grants Program.

That’s one reason why continued support for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is so imperative, said Lynn McClure, Midwest regional director at the National Parks Conservation Association.

It’s a big deal Obama put $300 million in the budget “when pots of money, like this dedicated funding, are big targets,” McClure said.

Currently, there are about 50 small and large-scale projects underway or completed in Illinois as part of the initiative, said Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office.

The projects range from working to prevent Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan to cleaning up a toxic harbor in Waukegan and restoring dunes in Lake County.

In Chicago, the Park District was awarded about $1.7 million for at least five beach-health projects, and as a result, Chicagoans will see fewer beaches closed this summer.

Extending the program means Chicagoans can continue to enjoy summer days swimming in Lake Michigan in years to come, said McClure.

“Some of the greatest Great Lakes Restoration Initiative money in Illinois will be felt by you and me pretty quickly,” McClure said.

The Park District will use the money for beach monitoring as well as shoreline cleanup seven days a week.

“Talk about direct impact, right?”

Beach closings are estimated to cause the loss of at least $25 a person per day in the city, said Brammeier.

“Loss of (beach) days has a clear impact on communities that are depended on high traffic on the shore line,” he said.

Last summer may have been an indication on how well the restoration initiative is working.

The 2011 season ended with fewer swimming bans than previous years, the Chicago Tribune reported in September.

For all 24 beaches in Chicago, the Park District issued 36 swim bans. That’s less than in 2010, when there were 41 swim bans, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Restoring the Great Lakes has other economic impacts for Chicago, said the National Wildlife Federation’s Buchsbaum,

“There are jobs that are directly created and enhanced by these restoration actions,” he said.

“It takes people to move dirt, build structures and do cleanup. There are jobs associated with that.”

Clean water and healthy shorelines can also increase property values, he said, because people want to live near lakes.

“In these economic times, when we are still fighting the burst of the housing bubble, factors that increase property values are important for the overall economy,” he said.

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