Ahead for the new year: Federal leadership, funding shifts with Great Lakes impacts

      Commentary

The Great Lakes always seem to be at some sort of crossroads – and 2013 will be no different.

President Obama was re-elected after a long, contentious election, but starts the New Year trying to decide whom he will nominate to replace outgoing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.

Jackson, one of the most liberal and outspoken administrators in the agency’s 42-year history, announced she is stepping down after Obama delivers his State of the Union address later this month.

Although it’s a federal position, the U.S. EPA head is hardly just another ol’ Cabinet selection for Great Lakes watchers.

The Great Lakes depend on a strong U.S. EPA administrator. Many of the near-shore impacts that affect Great Lakes water quality, starting with sewage control and other forms of pollution regulated under the federal Clean Water Act, are federal EPA responsibilities.

The U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago coordinates dozens of federal Great Lakes programs operated by that agency and others. Industry discharges and the wide range of runoff from streets, farms, parking lots, and golf courses are only part of what degrades water quality. People often forget the No. 1 pathway for Great Lakes pollution in recent years has been what falls from the sky, such as airborne mercury, soot particles, arsenic and lead, which the U.S. EPA regulates.

The lakes are one of North America’s most susceptible regions to the effects of climate change.  The extent to which mankind contributes greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere is another U.S. EPA responsibility.

The federal EPA determines what limits are reasonable for major sources of air pollution, such as power plants, cement kilns, refineries, factories and other manufacturing facilities, as well as automobiles. It needs a person at the top to have a strong backbone, if not a strong stomach.

Jackson was, in many ways, as outspoken and controversial as former U.S. EPA administrator Carol Browner when the latter served under former President Bill Clinton.

Although neither got climate legislation from Congress, Jackson pushed through rules that may have done more to steer investors away from the coal industry than any other administrator.

Much of that market shift was going to happen, anyway, because of the age of most coal-fired power plants, the global fracking boom and the steep declines in natural gas.

Nationally, coal-fired electricity is now at its lowest level since 1949. Coal produced nearly half of the nation’s electricity when Obama took office. Its market share in 2012 was at 40 percent. By the end of this decade, it’s expected to be down to 30 percent.

There’s bound to be a burnout factor when butting heads with corporations and conservative members of Congress, especially when money’s tight and your party’s trying to be more centrist. Jackson didn’t get carte blanche. One of her more stinging defeats was Obama’s decision to pull her agency’s plans for tighter smog-forming ozone rules until after the election, an issue that directly affects area energy markets because of the Great Lakes region’s heavy reliance on coal-fired power. But Jackson clearly set the U.S. EPA off on a more aggressive path following eight years of rollbacks and attempted rollbacks by the Bush administration.

So, now, the question is whether Obama will play it safe or go for a U.S. EPA administrator who picks up where Jackson left off.

Obama’s nomination of U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) for U.S. Secretary of State could yield positive results for the Great Lakes region.

Kerry is expected to be confirmed, in large part because of his three decades of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, most recently as chair.

The U.S. State Department has a presence in the region. It is the employer for the American side of the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canada body which since 1909 has helped the two nations resolve common boundary water issues, especially in the Great Lakes region. The U.S. State Department also has a role in settling certain fishing disputes.

But Kerry’s biggest impact could come in raising the profile of climate change domestically and abroad.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records almost certainly will show 2012 as the warmest year on record. Near-shore impacts and Great Lakes water quality in general are at risk the longer America delays on this issue.

Climate swings can bring record algae to western Lake Erie, as they did with heavy spring and summer storms in 2010 and 2011, or the opposite – a massive drought – as what happened in 2012. Both present unique problems to agriculture, which does best with more consistent weather patterns. Same goes with near-shore efforts to reduce sewage overflows and lessen the cost that communities face in filtering out toxic algae from their raw drinking water intakes.

The Obama administration tabled attempts to have Congress pass meaningful climate legislation after Democrats got crushed in the 2010 mid-term election.

Neither Obama nor challenger Mitt Romney said nary a peep about climate change during their campaigns, even with 2012 experiencing the worst drought in 50 years and the nation experiencing a spate of unusually violent storms, such as Hurricane Sandy. Kerry’s nomination won’t force changes overnight. But the former presidential candidate’s nomination is being supported by a former presidential candidate from the GOP, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who is one of his party’s supporters of climate change legislation.

Of course, all of the passionate rhetoric for saving the Great Lakes means nothing without money to back it up. If the fiscal cliff negotiations are any sign, nothing’s going to come easy.

Obama fell off course from his 2008 campaign pledge to infuse the Great Lakes region with at least $5 billion in new restoration money even before this nation began approaching its fiscal cliff. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative he created in response to a $23 billion needs inventory that was created in 2005 has brought the region $300 million in each of the past couple of years. That’s commendable, but it doesn’t equal the first-year allocation of $475 million or keep the administration on pace to fund at least $5 billion of work.

Now – fiscal cliff or not – insiders believe the Great Lakes region will face fiercer competition for funds in 2013 because of the damage inflicted on the East Coast by Hurricane Sandy.

Sewer improvements and expansions account for more than half of the $23 billion of the Great Lakes water-quality needs identified seven years ago.

After increasing the federal government’s biggest source of revenue for sewage work, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, Obama called for a 20 percent decrease in 2012. If that trend continues, cash-strapped communities will struggle more to finance or, more likely, see U.S. EPA approval to put off long overdue sewage work longer. That water and sewage fund, by the way, is the largest part of the U.S. EPA’s budget.

Hang tight. The election’s over. So are the New Year’s Eve celebrations. But the latest party’s just starting for the Great Lakes.

5 thoughts on “Ahead for the new year: Federal leadership, funding shifts with Great Lakes impacts

  1. There are many things we can do that cost nothing except common sense. However we have an entire Great Lake and connecting waters held hostage by the salmon guys. Until we get past that we’re wasting millions of dollars, and get to watch the ecosystem continue to degrade.

  2. Water is the economic engine for the Great Lakes – letting water quality continue to decline – damages the ability to grow the Great Lakes economy.
    To ignore the algae and Asian Carp etc. will only let these waters go downhill.
    To let all of us know how Great Lakes waters are improving or declining, we need extensive monitoring in the Great Lakes, Lake St. Clair, Georgian Bay and tributary outfalls.
    Preventative medicince we know saves in health care costs by having check ups, blood tests etc. Great Lakes waters are no different. We need the diagnostics to target where to fund and reduce harmful inputs to Great Lakes waters.
    We let Lake Erie for the last 20 years ride on its laurels and failed to monitor the changes – we can ill afford to continue these failed practices.

  3. Ironically, some of the best hope for the Great Lakes–and for environmental issues in general–hinges on REDUCING federal expenditures. For instance, we would be much better off if the federal government would stop funding sewer expansions. Costly sewer expansions have always been promoted as a way to improve water quality, but expanding sewer lines–and urban development–greatly increases non-point source water pollution which is the biggest determinant of water quality. If you look at data compiled for the Rouge River in southeast Michigan, it’s apparent that the more money which has been spent on sewer expansion projects, the lesser the water quality in those urban-sprawl areas (and it all flows downstream!). Tack on the devastating impacts on our already-urbanized areas, and a policy to quit funding sewer expansions should become a no-brainer.

    Another major billion-dollar program which the federal government should eliminate is funding for new highways. We’ve built more than enough interstate highways, so any new highways that states propose should be built entirely with state funding (and, hopefully, they won’t be built if they are required to pay the full costs). Federal money only skews the decision-making process towards building unnecessary highways–which are very costly to maintain in perpetuity.

    These are just two examples. I’m sure that people could think of many more.

  4. $16 trillion in debt and counting. 40 cents on the dollar borrowed. Yet we can’t fix anything unless it costs millions? $10 million a year in costs for one Asian Carp barrier, they want several. From where?

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