Plan to restore Great Lakes appears sunk
Written by Detroit Free Press - Puckstop   
Friday, 18 November 2005 06:20

Federal officials say they won't pay for the $20-billion plan President George W. Bush sought last year to improve the health of the Great Lakes by restoring coastal wetlands and keeping out sewage and invaders like zebra mussels.

A bipartisan coalition of elected leaders says it was stunned when an Environmental Protection Agency report recommended that Bush focus on "improving the efficiency and effectiveness of existing programs" instead of launching expensive new efforts.

Grosse Ile resident Bob Burns, who lives along the Detroit River and has fished and boated his entire life, said the news was discouraging.

"I thought it was a good idea," Burns said Wednesday. "We need more funding to deal with invasive species, erosion, wetlands and all the critical issues."

Last year, in a ballyhooed announcement, Bush called the lakes a "national treasure" and ordered a task force to spell out a plan to restore them.

More than 1,000 leaders and experts subsequently recommended in July that up to $20 billion in federal funding go to the lakes over 5 years to address crucial issues such as sewage overflows, invader species and wetlands destruction.

But the restoration shouldn't get 1 cent until an analysis of existing programs is undertaken, the EPA's administrator, Stephen Johnson, said in a report to Bush last month.

Bush's initiative gave Great Lakes leaders and advocates hope for a comprehensive effort along the lines of the $8.3-billion Florida Everglades rescue, approved in 2000. The federal government is paying for half of that plan.

The July proposal cited the importance of the Great Lakes to the Midwest economy and lifestyle. The lakes provide drinking water for 35 million people; are the linchpin of a multibillion-dollar tourism economy; serve as highways for a robust international shipping trade, and are the bedrock of outdoors pursuits like fishing, hunting, bird-watching, diving and boating.

Thomas Skinner, chief of the EPA's Great Lakes region, said the agency's report that Great Lakes projects need no additional funding shouldn't be a surprise.

"Everybody knows there are substantial needs ... but no one realistically expected at the end of 12 months that we would be ready to put down x-billion dollars toward this," Skinner said in an interview Wednesday. "This was always intended to be a step-by-step process. The money comes later."

Some of the money that advocates want already is coming to the Great Lakes states under myriad other programs, Skinner said.

Still, congressional leaders and governors from both political parties and environmentalists from across the Midwest say they were blindsided on Oct. 28 when the recommendation to Bush, signed by the EPA's Johnson, concluded the "strategy should focus on what can be accomplished within current budget projections."

In a Nov. 4 letter to Bush, 41 members of Congress wrote in part: "We are disappointed. ... We were led to believe that the administration would consider some new budget initiatives."

Great Lakes leaders wrote another letter to Bush, saying the zero-funding recommendation goes against "input from our nation's leading experts on the Great Lakes."

That letter was written by Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, also a Democrat.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has not formally responded to the recommendation, but said the letter from the other three, who are part of a regional council, speaks for her also.

Skinner said it is "unfair to characterize it as the federal government doing an about-face."

He said the expensive plan did not factor in the $2 billion annually the federal government expects to spend on a variety of Great Lakes water-quality activities during the next decade. Nor does it inventory the 140 federal programs that deal with Great Lakes issues.

Hopes to rescue even a fraction of the funding plan may rest on the Dec. 12 release of a final draft of a proposal by what Bush called a Great Lakes "regional collaboration of national significance."

It's a 1,500-member coalition of community leaders, scientists, activists, businesspeople and many others whose July draft proposal recommended the $16 billion to $20 billion in additional federal spending.

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