Levin: Fight U.S. House efforts to cut Great Lakes spending

Mar 8, 2011 Issues: Environment

The Great Lakes are in peril. This time the threat is not from sewer overflows, oil spills or aquatic invaders like the Asian carp.

It's from a U.S. House bill proposed by some Republicans that would decimate federal support for our clean water infrastructure and slash funding for the new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

This isn't the way it was supposed to turn out. After years of Washington indifference to the Great Lakes and its concerns, the 2008 election marked a turning point. Finally, we had a president who understood the importance of restoring the Great Lakes and a Congress willing to provide strong bipartisan support for the effort.

It was as if we had reached another milestone in U.S. environmental history, on the same scale as the establishment of the first National Parks in the 1870s, or the decision by Congress in 1990 to begin a 30-year plan to restore the Everglades.

Over the next two years, we began to make headway, first through an unprecedented $4 billion appropriation in 2009 to build and repair sewer systems and other water infrastructure. The money quadrupled the reach of the perennially underfunded Clean Water Revolving Fund program, pumping in financial resources to be distributed through grants and low-interest loans. Michigan alone received $186 million — more than six-times the previous year's allocation. This money improved water infrastructure around the state, including on several important projects aimed at reducing pollution in the Lake St. Clair watershed.

You don't have to look hard to find an example of the program's local benefits. The Clinton River and Lake St. Clair are both making a comeback in part because of the assistance. Twenty years ago, the Clinton River was crippled by pollution that ended up in Lake St. Clair, making it unsafe for swimming. A $130 million project to improve Kuhn Drain in Oakland County — once a major source of the pollution — is now complete thanks to Clean Water Revolving Fund loans covering $100 million of the cost.

In 2010, Congress provided an additional $2.1 billion for the Revolving Fund program to build on the progress. In addition, Congress approved $475 million as a down payment for a long-term effort to restore the Great Lakes.

The new program — the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — targets federal resources at invasive species, non-point pollution, and contaminated sediment in the Great Lakes.

It has been essential in the battle to block the Asian carp from invading, providing $38 million to this effort in 2010 alone. If the carp break through and become established in the Great Lakes, they will overturn the entire water ecosystem and devastate our region's $7 billion fishery, putting 800,000 jobs at risk in our tourism and recreational fishing industries.

Today, efforts to clean up pollution and restore the Great Lakes are imperiled by the misguided and unbalanced spending bill the GOP approved in February. The bill would cut this year's Clean Water funding by two-thirds, potentially paralyzing local projects.

The bad news gets worse: The House bill would slice in half funding for the new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The Asian carp that are knocking on the back door to Lake Michigan probably appreciate the move, but it is daunting for the rest of us.

Everyone agrees with the need to rein in the deficit. But targeting these programs for such drastic cuts is a huge backward step for the Great Lakes. Now more than ever, all of us need to stand together and save the Great Lakes.