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A boater in a small watercraft navigates around a buoy in Lake Michigan amid lake swells and morning sun on Friday, April 27, 2012.

Scott Anderson - Racine Journal Times

By a huge majority – 78 percent – independent voters in Wisconsin say they want to restore and protect the Great Lakes, one of the most valuable parts of our nation’s natural infrastructure. To win those indispensable voters, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama would be well advised to sign on to support the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Actually, Obama already has. Over three years he has put about $1 billion into the GLRI, which was initiated but not funded by President George W. Bush. A pledge to continue that work could draw significant votes in all eight of the Great Lakes states – Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Note that there is more than one swing state on this list.

As Biz Beat’s Mike Ivey reported on Oct. 1 in a story on a poll conducted by the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, there is strong support in Wisconsin for restoring and protecting the lakes from all parts of the electorate — 63 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of Democrats in addition to the 78 percent of independents. The coalition – of 120 environmental, conservation, outdoor recreation and other organizations – is aiming to get both Obama and Romney to sign its Great Lakes pledge to maintain restoration funding and to stop an Asian carp invasion.

Not only is protecting the Great Lakes the right thing to do, it makes total economic sense. A Brookings Institution study calculated that every $1 invested in restoration programs results in $2 of economic benefit in the form of increased tourism, fishing, and property values. In Wisconsin, Lake Superior and Lake Michigan support a $3 billion tourism industry in lakeshore counties, provide drinking water for 1.6 million people, support a commercial fishing industry, and provide water for manufacturing.

In our state, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has built on the work of the Wisconsin Great Lakes Strategy, which was developed in partnership by the Department of Natural Resources, local communities, tribes, businesses and nonprofit organizations. The strategy outlines actions needed to restore the lakes and their watersheds, keep out invasive species, clean up contaminated sediment sites, control pollution and protect habitat.

Under the GLRI, Wisconsin so far has received $69 million for 130 projects. Among them: removing PCBs and heavy metals from the Kinnickinnic River near Milwaukee, which has improved water quality and fostered economic development; restoring wetlands in western Green Bay, which allowed northern pike to return and provided new habitat for migratory birds; and building structures to help fish bypass two dams along the Menominee River, helping to restore lake sturgeon populations in Lake Michigan. Just recently the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was awarded a $300,000 grant for a project will allow vessels to use holograph-based technology to help identify invasive species in ballast water.

Environmental and conservation leaders across the region are backing Great Lakes protection efforts.

“Great Lakes restoration is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” said George Meyer, director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former DNR secretary. “It’s an issue defined by urgency and action. We want the next president to carry the torch for Great Lakes restoration so that these precious lakes can be enjoyed by people now and for generations to come.”

Meyer is exactly right. Support for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been and should continue to be a bipartisan effort.

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