Marine News from the Great Lakes

Federal Investment Needed to Confront Water Infrastructure Crisis in Great Lakes Region

Published: Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Communities across the Great Lakes region continue to grapple with crumbling drinking water and wastewater infrastructure—according to the U.S. EPA, a staggering $180 billion over the next 20 years is needed in improvements, upgrades and repairs in the eight-state region of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania. Federal programs provide much-needed funding to help communities meet their clean water goals.


The Great Lakes provide drinking water to more than 30 million people. They are the foundation of our economy and our way of life. Unfortunately, the lakes face serious threats, including pollution from sewage overflows. Communities often cannot afford costly repairs to old infrastructure—underscoring the importance of investments by the federal government.

Sewage pollutes the Great Lakes, harming our way of life

Sewage overflows during heavy rains are still a reality in the Great Lakes region with tens of billions of gallons of raw or partially treated sewage entering the lakes each year. As a result, beaches are closed and public health is threatened. Our quality of life is undermined when our Great Lakes are polluted.

Crumbling infrastructure causes water rates to rise

Fixing, repairing and upgrading water infrastructure is expensive—and local communities are being forced to foot a greater portion of the bill. From 2010 to 2017, water rates increased 41 percent across the country. At the same time, federal funding for water infrastructure has dropped significantly over the last four decades. In 1977, federal investments made up 63 percent of total spending on water infrastructure. By 2014, that had dropped down to 9 percent.

Nearly $180 billion over 20 years needed to update and upgrade water infrastructure

A survey of infrastructure investment needed in the nation shows that the Great Lakes region alone requires nearly $180 billion over the next 20 years to repair and replace our wastewater and drinking water infrastructure.


Wastewater Infrastructure Need over 20 years

Drinking Water Infrastructure need over 20 years

Total need over 20 years


$2.389 billion

$7.363 billion

$9.903 billion


$6.329 billion

$7.141 billion

$13.616 billion


$6.537 billion

$18.985 billion

$25.913 billion


$7.162 billion

$6.547 billion

$13.843 billion


$2.077 billion

$13.814 billion

$16.175 billion


$14.587 billion

$12.191 billion

$27.030 billion


$6.950 billion

$14.227 billion

$21.471 billion

New York

$31.439 billion

$22.041 billion

$53.936 billion


$77.470 billion

$102.289 billion

$179.759 billion


Federal investments key to helping communities protect clean water

Sewage overflows can be prevented. Crumbling pipes can be replaced. Outdated facilities can be updated. But each of these projects costs money—often more money than local communities can afford on their own. Two federal programs can help communities offset the cost of these needed investments in wastewater and drinking water infrastructure: the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, respectively. Both offer low-interest loans to communities to address these costly infrastructure challenges. Funding levels have not kept pace with need and the U.S. Congress must take steps to make these investments a priority.

Nature-based solutions can save communities money

Not all investments need to be in restoring so-called traditional infrastructure. Nature-based solutions like rain gardens, planting more trees, and restoring wetlands can help communities save money and reduce the burden on traditional water infrastructure. Natural infrastructure can help absorb and filter rain water before it overwhelms outdated systems.

Successes in the region
  • Investments in the wastewater treatment plant in Duluth, Minn., led to a resurgence of fish populations and an active water front. Tourism dollars flow into the community annually from this river restoration, but the facility itself has become an asset. Solid waste is turned into nutrient-rich fertilizer and is given away to farmers growing livestock feed. Part of the facility collects hard-to-dispose of items, like mattresses or tires, which in earlier years might have ended up in the river.
  • In Milwaukee, Wis., investments in nature-based solutions to water infrastructure problems have helped reduce the strain of heavy rains on the traditional infrastructure system. Investments like water retention basins under streets, rain gardens, and permeable pavement have allowed the city to hold more stormwater at a lower cost than before.
  • Nature-based solutions like tree plantings, rain gardens, and rain barrels are projected to allow Detroit, Mich., to save millions of dollars in its efforts to reduce sewer overflows into the Great Lakes. Investments in natural infrastructure would cost $33 million each year, as opposed to $190 million for traditional infrastructure.
Congress needs to act

Investments in the region are paying off—but much more needs to be done. The U.S. Congress needs to do its fair share to help local communities meet their clean water goals. We have solutions. It’s time to use them. Delay will only make the problems worse and more costly to solve.


Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition Staff


Todd Ambs

Campaign Director


[email protected]

Jennifer Hill

Assistant Campaign Director


[email protected]

Chad Lord

Policy Director


[email protected]

Jordan Lubetkin

Communications Director


[email protected]

Celia Haven

Field Manager


[email protected]

Anna Brunner

Communications Coordinator


[email protected]


Mack, E.A., and S. Wrase. “A Burgeoning Crisis? A Nationwide Assessment of the Geography of Water Affordability in the United States.” PLOS ONE. Jan 11, 2017.

U.S. Water Alliance. 2017. “An Equitable Water Future: A National Briefing Paper” P. 12.

U.S. E.P.A. 2016. “Clean Watersheds Needs Survey 2012: Report to Congress.” Pp. A-1 – A-2.

U.S. E.P.A. 2013. “Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment: Fifth Report to Congress.” P. 19.

Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “Progress and Promise: 21 Stories that Showcase Successful Great Lakes Restoration Projects” October 2010.

The Nature Conservancy. “Green Infrastructure Case Studies” June 2013.

Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “Turning the Tide: Investing in Wastewater Infrastructure to Create Jobs and Solve the Sewage Crisis in the Great Lakes.” August 2010.





tags: Environmental Impact, Great Lakes

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