Hyper-focus on Washington threatens Great Lakes restoration

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson

Lobbying Washington for money is a risky game. It can make a trip to Las Vegas seem a good bet. Here’s what I mean:

Within 24 hours this week there were two events that took support for the Great Lakes in opposite directions when it comes to securing federal dollars.

Representative Dave Joyce of Ohio held a high profile press conference to announce a $600 million piece of legislation to continue the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Similar legislation had been introduced in the Senate. Joyce is a Republican whose district borders Lake Erie.

But here’s a key point. Joyce’s bill — like the Senate version — is authorization legislation, the easy part. It doesn’t provide funding. That comes from annual appropriation legislation and that’s headed in a different direction.

At the same time a House appropriations subcommittee voted to reduce funding for Great Lakes restoration from the current $285 million level to $60 million.

What’s up?  How could proposed legislation coming out of the same body — the U.S. House of Representatives — in the same week be so disparate?

That’s how Washington works now and is likely to for the near term. The old get along process is no longer viable. We live in an era where budget reduction messages are coming from both political parties. The magnitude of the cut depends on the party with the most leverage and right now fiscal conservatives are driving the budget discussion.

As much as some believe our beloved Great Lakes should be immune from the process, they aren’t.

Advocates outraged

Reaction was quick from the Healing Our Waters group, the 100+ member not-for-profit coalition whose job is to lobby for federal funding for the Great Lakes.

“U.S. House Bill Eviscerates Great Lakes Funding” read the headline on a press release from the coalition.

Coalition campaign director Todd Ambs reached into the talking-point playbook and repeated the same message oft heard anytime there has been a hint of a reduction in funding for the Great Lakes.

“Slashing successful Great Lakes programs will not save the nation one penny. It will only cost taxpayers more, because projects will only become more difficult and expensive the longer we wait,” he said.

House appropriators have long-heard that message and have moved past it perhaps seeing it as out of touch with budget realities. They feel obligated to cut discretionary spending for programs like the Great Lakes to balance the budget and reduce the deficit.

The Healing Our Waters Coalition, claiming broad bi-partisan support for the Great Lakes in Washington,   vowed to lean on Great Lakes “champions” in Congress to have the funding restored.

It’s too early in the budget process to know how this will end. President Barack Obama put $300 million in his budget request for the Great Lakes and the Senate’s number is likely to align with the president’s.  But this is Washington in an era where cutting the budget is seen as a badge of honor in the U.S. House so it will play out in the political arena.

Should any amount even close to $60 million hold it would be a blow to Great Lakes restoration. The biggest impact would be on cleanup of the legacy polluted sites that dot the region, the area where the federal initiative has made real progress with more desperately needed.

Those toxic sites are a drag on restoring and renewing many of our urban waterways and it would be wrong for Washington to interrupt that progress.chicagoview

The work is beyond the capacity of state and local governments and a federal role is needed. There’s a direct positive environmental and economic impact to be gained by removing legacy pollutants from places liked Michigan’s Rouge River, the Buffalo River in New York and dozens of other sites in the region.

That program could make significant progress with $150 million annually. There is no basis even in a politically-charged budget fight to cut funding for cleanup of those toxic sites.

But beyond the legacy sites the restoration initiative becomes harder to defend.

It contains a number of soft and politically motivated projects that detract from the intent of the initiative. That’s not a surprise I guess as it comes with the politics and largesse inherent in federal programs.

It takes more than money

Harmful algae blooms are the current poster child for treating the lakes badly but that’s not a money issue. The fix there is to get agriculture to voluntarily comply with best practices to control runoff or to regulate farmers. It remains a question if either will happen.

Dumping sewage into the Great Lakes during heavy rain events is another area where House appropriators want big cuts. But that program by design was never part of the restoration initiative and even the president’s proposed budget took a whack at that pot of money.

That leaves the federal fight against Asian carp, which has been funded by the restoration initiative though it wasn’t part of the original program. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where even the most zealous budget hawk in the House wouldn’t find a way to fund the carp fight. Who would want Asian carp in the Great Lakes on their resume?

The current budget dustup illustrates a flaw in the restoration plan and I wrote about it a year ago.

Restoration has to be about more than the money.

Securing millions — billions — of federal dollars for the Great Lakes will be a budget issue for the foreseeable future. There will be years of success — as in the period between 2010-2012 — and years of declining revenue, which is where we are now.  But it will always be cyclical and the trend line now is down.

What’s the plan for the down years?

How about a campaign that challenges the chipping away at protections occurring at the state level? As restoration works to restore wetlands states are relaxing wetland protections.

Or a full court press on agriculture to control runoff so Lake Erie doesn’t continue to decline and take a big chunk of northern Ohio’s tourist economy with it?

The beauty of taking on those challenges is they don’t require massive amounts of money. It takes the will to slug it out in the political trenches and at the state level where some of those congressional Great Lakes “champions” could lend a hand.

Not every big program to restore and protect the Great Lakes needs to involve lining up at the federal  trough for money.

To follow that singular track is akin to playing only offense in your favorite team sport but having no plan for when your offense sputters, which it inevitably will.

That makes about as much sense as taking a trip to Las Vegas hoping to fund your kid’s college education.  There has to be more than one path.

A path that is less reliant on the vagaries and swings of Washington politics.


8 thoughts on “Hyper-focus on Washington threatens Great Lakes restoration

  1. Awhile back I was asked to give a talk on Asian Carp at a Democratic function. The room was full of current and wannabe politicians. After the talk I worked the room studies in hand. The wannabes all had little handouts easy to find. I started to talk to one gentleman and he asked me what district I was in. After I told him he stated I should go find the persons running for my district. As I started to explain that Asian Carp like the other invasives would affect everyone in the state, he insisted that I find the guy from my district, and refused to talk to me. Even tho Lake Michigan is spreading the joy of invasive species across the country, I believe non great lakes states don’t care, or the what’s in it for me syndrome. Dysfunctional Yep!

  2. You make some good points and I appreciate your efforts to keep a spotlight on this topic. In regards to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, it becomes a rather serious issue when cities like Chicago mis-use or re-direct funds from this program to support projects wholly unrelated to the mandate of the Initiative, like the concert venue at Northerly Island in downtown Chicago that you highlighted last month. http://greatlakesecho.org/2013/06/14/rock-and-roll-and-restoration-strange-great-lakes-bedfellows/

    It’s this sort of abuse of public funds that triggers a knee-jerk reaction from certain Congressional Committee ommittee Members to cut all funding for this Initiative, which then adversely affects the projects that do fulfill the mandate of restoring the Great Lakes and are in genuine need of federal money to succeed.

  3. The U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted on Great Lakes funding yesterday and the chair said that the subcommittee had cut restoration funding too much.

    Current funding is $300M and the subcommittee had cut it to $60M.

    A proposal to restore funding to $300M was defeated but one to peg it at $210M passed as a committee member was able to find an offset. if there wasn’t an offset it would have failed.

    Here’s what the D.C. based Northeast Midwest Institute who tracks these things had to say.

    “The panel also grappled with demands by several of its members from Great Lakes states that it boost funding for programs to clean up the lakes. The bill would cut the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, for example, by nearly 80 percent.

    Panel Republican Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and David Joyce of Ohio offered an amendment that would increase funding for the initiative by $150 million to a total of $210 million. The measure would be offset by extending a federal program that sells helium.”

    This is not the last word and funding for the Great Lakes will be part of the overall budget process with the Senate and the White House.

    Gary Wilson

  4. Thom,

    Thanks for your comment. It reminded me of what your colleague Noah Hall at Wayne State Law said about the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative when it kicked off in 2009.

    From his Great Lakes Environmental Law Center blog, October 27, 2009″

    “Federal funding for Great Lakes restoration won’t stop new pollution problems

    The Great Lakes restoration campaign – led by conservation groups, industry, and state and local governments to get more federal funding for research, habitat restoration, and toxic clean-ups – is taking some deserved criticism for simply throwing a lot of money at existing problems without providing new solutions. As Dan Egan reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article “Great Lakes aid isn’t a cure-all; Despite $475 million restoration plan, damage continues in freshwater system”, some environmental advocates are beginning to question the effectiveness of a strategy that focuses on spending money on old problems as new and ongoing sources of pollution and degradation go unchecked.

    I’m not saying the Great Lakes should turn down federal restoration funds — the funded projects will do some good things and pump more money into our regional economy. However, it doesn’t make much sense to spend federal money researching responses to invasive species when the federal government is still dragging its feet in closing the door on new invasive species coming into the Great Lakes. Similarly, restoring coastal habitat is certainly important, but the federal government’s and states’ collective failure to enforce wetlands laws will undermine the effectiveness of money spent on coastal habitat restoration. And as we ask Congress for money to clean up legacy contamination hot spots in the Great Lakes, we should be preventing new toxic messes from occurring — such as contaminated coal waste landfills on Saginaw Bay.

    There is also a public perception problem with the Great Lakes restoration campaign. It gives the public the sense that our environmental problems are remnants of the old days, before laws like the Clean Water Act were put in place. If this were true, then spending money on old problems would make sense. But while we have made tremendous progress in environmental protection, the reality is that many environmental disasters are still occurring. The recent New York Times Toxic Waters series illustrates how pollution from coal mining, coal waste, and animal feedlots is literally poisoning our waters. If we spent a fraction of the restoration money on enforcing existing laws to prevent new sources of pollution, we would see a better return on our investment with cleaner water and healthier families.”

    — Gary Wilson —

  5. I appreciate your continuing to raise this point, Gary. Full funding of restoration programs is critically important, but restoring and protecting the Great Lakes also requires full implementation and enforcement of environmental laws and programs. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (or in this case, clean up). There are numerous issues — invasive species, nutrients, and toxics, just to name a few — where stronger state and federal actions to implement and enforce existing laws would go a long way.

    Thom Cmar

  6. For those who want to take a closer look at the appropriations process and the committee meeting that reduced funding for the Great Lakes, here’s a link to the meeting.


    A few tips.

    The meeting doesn’t start until the 36:00 mark so you’ll have to fast forward the timer bar.

    At that point it lasts about 90 minutes.

    More than Great Lakes topics are discussed.

    Always interesting to get a peek behind the legislative curtain.

    Gary Wilson

  7. I agree Gary, not every plan to restore and protect the Great lakes needs to line up at the Federal trough. The country is $16 trillion in debt, any money is borrowed increasing that debt. If there is no money what can we do without money? We have everything we need to deal with Asian Carp, algae blooms right now, plenty of studies already paid for. We’re spending another $25 million for a third barrier in Chicago, do we really need 3 barriers? One area the Asian Carp got past 5 regular dams. Barriers of any kind are an obstacle at best, and only affect one spot, we got’s many “spots” and billions of asian carp. Billions of other invasive species are mostly ignored, how does more money help if you don’t really do anything? The invasives are winning, throwing more money at it helps how? For the record yes we need to clean up pollution and that takes money, plenty of people working that angle. Invasive species costs $137 billion a year, I’d like to eliminate that.

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