The Detroit News, December 12, 2005


[Rachel's introduction: The Great Lakes hold what soon will be our nation's most precious resource -- 20 percent of the Earth's fresh water (and 95% of the fresh water in North America). But the lakes are stressed almost to the point of no return, scientists say. A presidential task force just unveiled a $20 billion plan to restore the Lakes -- but federal funding is in doubt because of hurricane Katrina and the Iraq war.]

By Deb Price

[DHN introduction: Scientists say the Great Lakes ecosystem is stressed almost to the point of no return. As we reported in Rachel's #826, a Presidential Task Force has recommended a 15-year program to restore the lakes -- but now the money is in doubt. Cynics are suggesting that perhaps President Bush just appointed his Great Lakes Task Force so he could win Michigan in the last election. Holding 95% of all the fresh water in North America, the Great Lakes are going to become increasingly important as time passes and water becomes scarcer. This is one problem the U.S. and Canadian governments dare not walk away from -- but they're going to need citizens to keep reminding them, and reminding them, and reminding them. It's not so much a question of financial deficits as it is attention deficits. -- Editors]

WASHINGTON-- A presidential task force Monday released a historic $20 billion, 15-year blueprint to restore the ailing Great Lakes -- but without promises from the White House or Congress to fund it.

If implemented, it would be among the most ambitious environmental projects in U.S. history. And it was to be followed today by another historic measure to protect the world's largest freshwater resource. Great Lakes political leaders were ready to sign an agreement banning diversion of Great Lakes water.

After representatives of the Great Lakes basin -- eight U.S. governors and two Canadian premiers -- sign the compact, it must be approved by the eight state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.

"Either one of these two would be the initiative of the decade and an incredible accomplishment," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the Great Lakes office at the National Wildlife Federation. "This is an incredible time for the Great Lakes."

While the $20 billion plan spells out in minute detail what it would take to protect the lakes, there was great skepticism that it could be funded at anywhere near that level in an era of massive federal budget deficits requiring widespread cuts in federal spending.

The sum of $20 billion would be a huge increase in what Congress has so far been willing to commit: Between 1992 and 2004, the federal government pumped just $1.7 billion into Great Lakes restoration efforts, according to a congressional report.

At a news conference in Chicago unveiling the restoration plan, Great Lakes state and local officials vowed to come up with $140 million in state and local money to launch the project if the federal government agrees to $300 million in additional funding in fiscal year 2007.

The federal government says the dozens of programs it operates that have an impact, such as cleaning up highly contaminated sites, amount to about $500 million a year. But the task force report calls mostly for new funding initiatives.

U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, said he would author legislation to implement the plan and hold hearings to try to build support for boosting the federal commitment to cleaning up the lakes. But he acknowledged there will be funding challenges.

"Before Katrina and the other hurricanes, I think there was real hope that we could finally tackle this," said Ehlers, who chairs a House Science subcommittee. "There are a lot of demands on the budget. But there is a substantial part of the Congress that wants to get this project going."

About two-thirds of the $20 billion proposal would go to fix and upgrade old sewer systems in the Great Lakes region, which in wet weather sometimes dump inadequately treated sewage into the waterways, leading to fish kills and beach closings. In addition, the plan calls for combatting invasive species, restoring wetlands and other wildlife habitats and accelerating the cleanup of highly contaminated areas.

The plan proposes fighting invasive species by building barriers at several points of entry to the lakes, as well as by passing the National Aquatic Invasive Species Act to prohibit releasing untreated ballast water from oceangoing ships.

The plan also calls for restoring and increasing the amount of wetlands around the lakes by 550,000 acres by 2010, at a cost of $188 million annually. Those provide crucial habitat for waterfowl and fish, as well as filter out contaminants. The document also calls for $20 million to research dwindling fish populations and to boost stock of native fish populations.

It also urges the $2.25 billion over 15 years to clean up 31 toxic sites in the United States. Nearly half of the 31 areas of concerns are in Michigan waters, including in the Detroit, Clinton, Rouge and St. Clair rivers.

The Great Lakes hold 95 percent of the nation's fresh surface water and are a huge economic engine, supporting 250,000 jobs in the region. Boating alone is a $35 billion-a-year industry, while hunting, fishing and wildlife account for about $18 billion in revenue.

"We pledge to work with Congress on legislative efforts to restore and protect the lakes," Stephen Johnson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said at the news conference. "Today's blueprint is the next step in ensuring the Great Lakes remain an international treasure."

Johnson, while not committing to any funding levels, said the EPA is committed to reducing sewage overflows by 2020, making permanent a barrier to keep Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes, and speeding up cleanup of toxic areas.

But already Congress, responding to requests by the president, is trying to cut spending by as much as $50 billion over the next five years for food stamps, Medicaid and other safety-net programs. That, added to anticipated increases in the cost of Social Security and Medicare as the baby boom generation ages, raises concern that the Congress and White House won't commit to a large-scale environmental project.

U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, after meeting with Johnson last week, said he believes there "won't be any new funds" for a massive Great Lakes cleanup project.

U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, called the report "just a big hype about nothing."

Stupak charges that President Bush created the task force during the 2004 presidential campaign to try to win Michigan and other swing Great Lakes states. He expects Bush in his State of the Union address to say he has to control spending, and that means additional funding won't be coming to back up the task force's recommendations.

"We've been through this a million times," said Stupak. "Nothing is going to happen with the Great Lakes until there is a commitment of money. I don't see that happening until we have a new president."

Environmentalists say they will push Congress to increase spending, warning that delay will simply add to the cost of restoration.

"The next steps are of paramount importance," said Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association. "The follow- through and the funding will be the key tests."

The National Wildlife Federation's Buchsbaum added: "Tomorrow we roll up our sleeves and turn this excellent plan into action."

Tim Shelson, owner of Ausable Marina in Oscoda, said he is hopeful the plan will be enacted to boost fish populations.

"(Lake Huron) really needs some help," Shelson said.

John Rohe, an attorney in Petoskey who boats on the Great Lakes often, said he is worried about eating fish caught in the lakes.

"We live our life around the Great Lakes, not to mention it is the water we drink and bathe with and use," Rohe said in explaining why he hopes the plan goes forward. "If you want to rank my concern on a scale of 1 to 10, it is about an 8 or 9. That is a tremendous insult to generations to come."

Signaling one of the ways environmentalists hope to sell the plan to a Congress faced with competing big-ticket items, Emily Green, director of the Great Lakes program for the Sierra Club, said the rush of construction jobs in the short term and increased tourism and recreation in the long term will create "prosperity and growth" and turn the region from being known as the rust belt states to the water belt economy.

"The sooner we make the investment, the better," Green said. "Every day we wait means that this problem will only get bigger."

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and the governors of the Great Lakes states have asked Bush to support the new funding.

"I am well aware that there are competing priorities and tight budgets," Daley said. "However, investments we make now will prevent the need for far larger expenditures in the future."

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft said states are prepared to contribute financially. "If we hesitate to spend money, we will lose time, and we do not have time to lose."

Detroit News Washington Bureau Chief Alison Bethel and the Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Deb Price at (202) 662-8736 or dprice@