I recently hopped in the car and drove a few hours west to spend a few days in Cleveland, Ohio. From the moment I crossed the Ohio state line, I was inundated by the campaigns of the two leading candidates for President of the United States. Radio ads, billboards, and lawn signs were ubiquitous. The fight for the battleground state of Ohio was definitely in full swing. There were references to jobs, health care, taxes, social issues, and more jobs. Many of these issues are very divisive, and exemplify stark differences in where Americans stand on important issues of the day.
However, I was there for a different issue not mentioned on any billboards. I was there for a non-partisan issue that unites everyone—protecting and restoring the Great Lakes. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, everyone agrees that we need clean water. Let’s face it, you can’t have a Tea Party without clean water, nor can you brew your organic, fair trade coffee without clean water. Conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between needs and wants clean water.
I was in Cleveland for the Healing Our Waters (HOW) Great Lakes conference, which brought together hundreds of Great Lakes stakeholders from environmental groups, government, academia, business, tribes, and the public to discuss the importance of the lakes, the threats they face, and the need to invest in protecting and restoring them. The conference was held at the perfect time and place to highlight the need for leadership from the President to protect this national treasure.
You may not see super PACs funding advertisements for protecting the Great Lakes any time soon, but nonetheless, this is an issue that the Presidential candidates must pay attention to. Take a recent poll of Ohio residents, which found that a large majority of Ohio voters (72%) supports continuing Great Lakes restoration funding, including 63% of Republicans, 72% of independents, and 79% of Democrats. In these increasingly divisive times, it is not often that we see such unity in support of any issue. It’s really no wonder though, as the lakes provide drinking water for more than 30 million Americans, generate billions and billions of dollars to the regional economy, support unparalleled recreational opportunities, and just flat out enhance our quality of life.
The role of the President cannot be overstated when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes. It was President Bush that convened a process to develop a blueprint for protecting and restoring the Great Lakes. It has been President Obama’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) that has pumped over a billion dollars into addressing the most pressing issues facing the lakes: cleaning up toxic hot spots, combating invasive species, reducing polluted runoff, and restoring fish and wildlife habitat. The next President, whoever it may be, must recognize the value of lakes, and continue this progress.
CCE and our partners at the HOW Coalition are non-partisan. We don’t endorse any candidates. Instead, we are urging both candidates to sign a pledge committing to continued investment in the Great Lakes and implementing a permanent solution to keeping the invasive Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. To date, neither candidate has signed. However, the conference did provide each campaign an opportunity to participate in a candidate forum on the last day of the conference.
The last day of the conference came, and we would finally see the two campaigns square off. I was expecting that both campaigns would seize this opportunity and state how much they cared about the lakes and what they would do to ensure that they are protected and restored. In one corner was the former head of the EPA, Carol Browner, there to represent President Obama. In the other corner…an empty space. Really? Unfortunately, the Romney campaign did not send a representative to the forum. Disappointing to say the least. Ms. Browner touted the President’s record on Great Lakes, including the billion dollar investment in the GLRI and regulations to curb mercury pollution. She indicated that the President would continue supporting Great Lakes funding if reelected.
I found Cleveland to be a beautiful city and was very impressed with how they have capitalized on their Lake Erie waterfront. The Cuyahoga River was not in flames as it was before the Clean Water Act; however, we know that problems with the lakes continue to lurk beneath the surface. These problems must be addressed before they become irreparable. Ohioans recognize this, and support taking action because they love their lake. So must the candidates that are vying for their votes this November.