After years of neglect by the federal government, the Great Lakes may finally get some of the attention they deserve. That’s because Capitol Hill is now considering legislation that would invest federal dollars in projects designed to protect the lakes. The bill in question promises to preserve key components of the region’s environment and has the added potential to stimulate economic activity in Michigan. And because the Great Lakes are such a valuable resource for this state and the nation, Congress has a responsibility to the environment, Michigan and surrounding states to protect them.

The U.S. House of Representatives is currently considering the Great Lakes Water Protection Act, which would commit more than $20 billion over the next five years to contribute to the long-term sustainability of the Great Lakes. A related bill has also been introduced in the Senate, backed by Michigan’s Carl Levin. Although similar legislation has been voted down in previous years, the new plan is more likely to succeed now that Democrats control both Congress and the presidency — particularly in light of President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to create a federal trust fund to preserve the lakes.

If passed, this plan would take steps to address some of the problems troubling the Great Lakes in recent years. One of the largest parts of the bill would revamp waste and storm water management systems, replacing antiquated infrastructure that allows contaminants to leak into natural water systems. The bill would also set a deadline for restricting sewage dumping into the lakes. Other components being considered would clean up pollutants in rivers that feed into the lakes and combat invasive species that threaten freshwater environments.

The problems facing the lakes are simply too big for states to tackle on their own. That means the federal government needs to honor its long-neglected responsibility to protect the region’s environment. The Great Lakes are more than just a part of Michigan’s mitten-shaped identity; as the world’s largest freshwater reserve, they also stand as one of the nation’s most precious resources. Preserving them needs to be a priority, because cleaner, healthier lakes stand to enhance the health and well-being of people and ecosystems throughout the entire region.

This legislation would also provide much-needed help to Michigan’s ailing economy. The plan is projected to create 40,000 jobs in Michigan alone. And tourism, one of the state’s largest industries, stands to benefit as well. Cleaner water and healthier ecosystems are likely to attract greater numbers of sportsmen, fishers and family beach-goers to the state. Increased tourism would infuse the state economy with much-needed cash and support businesses facing tough economic times. As an added bonus, tourism generates tax revenues for the state that can be used for things like increasing funding to higher education.

Protecting the future of the Great Lakes shouldn’t be delayed. Their impact on the environment and economy — in Michigan and the entire region — is far too important to ignore. Obama needs to honor his commitment to make the lakes an environmental priority. For its part, Congress needs to get its act together and pass a comprehensive plan to preserve these national treasures for current and future generations.

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