Bills offered in Congress to protect Great Lakes

By John Flesher

AP Environmental Writer

TRAVERSE CITY (AP) -- Great Lakes environmental priorities such as toxic sediment cleanups and battling invasive species could get more than $3 billion in federal money over five years under bills offered last week in Congress.

Identical measures introduced in the House and Senate would authorize Congress to meet -- and even exceed -- President Barack Obama's funding requests to help repair the nation's largest surface freshwater system, ravaged by more than a century of industrial-era abuses.

"The Great Lakes are a unique American treasure," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and a sponsor of the Senate version. "Nearly a tenth of our population lives in the Great Lakes basin, relying on the life-sustaining drinking water the lakes provide, and reaping economic and recreational benefits from them daily."

Even if the bills are enacted, they won't guarantee all the proposed funding. Congress votes yearly on appropriation measures that determine how much is spent on particular programs.

But the legislation would help continue momentum toward a comprehensive Great Lakes restoration proposed in 2005 by government agencies, scientists and advocates. The plan received little funding until Obama requested -- and Congress approved -- $475 million in the 2010 budget.

"It shows that Congress is treating the lakes as a national priority," said Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

Administration officials last month released a strategy for beginning to carry out the restoration, which could take decades to complete. Obama's plan would spend $2.2 billion over five years, including $300 million in 2011.

The congressional bills would boost next year's funding to $475 million and authorize additional money for removing contaminated sediments from tributary rivers and harbors. They also propose $25 million a year to run the Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes Program Office.

Altogether, the bills seek $650 million annually, or $3.25 billion over five years.

"The Great Lakes represent 20 percent of the world's fresh water supply, and it is about time we put some serious effort into restoring and protecting them," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat and one of the House version's sponsors.

Aside from cleaning up some of the region's most polluted sites, the bills would restore wetlands and other fish and wildlife habitat, reduce runoff pollution that causes nuisance algae blooms, and help fend off invasions by foreign species such as the notorious Asian carp.

Exotic species already in the lakes, such as zebra and quagga mussels, cause more than $200 million a year in damages and control costs.

Environmental groups urged Congress to approve the bills despite the tight federal budget, saying the cost of healing the lakes would only go up.

"It's going to take a sustained, multi-year effort to nurse the Great Lakes back to health," Skelding said.

Published: Tue, Mar 9, 2010