Bill would spend $300M on Great Lakes restoration

Stony Point
Waves crash near shore at Stony Point in February 2013 near Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

A spending bill crafted by congressional leaders would allocate $300 million to a Great Lakes cleanup that had been threatened with a massive cut during last year's budget fight, supporters said Tuesday.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is a program dealing with some of the lakes' most serious environmental problems such as invasive species, loss of wetlands and other wildlife habitat, toxic pollution and runoff that causes algae blooms.

It has gotten around $300 million in most years since funding began in 2010. But last year, a House subcommittee proposed slashing the 2014 allocation to just $60 million - an 80 percent cut that Great Lakes advocates said would gut the program, which has bipartisan support in Congress.

The compromise measure released this week also would boost spending on another program targeted with an 80 percent funding cut last year that provides loans to communities for improving drinking water and sewage treatment infrastructure. That program is slated to receive $1.44 billion in 2014, up from $1.37 billion in 2013. About one-third of that money usually goes to the Great Lakes region, where sewer overflows are a serious problem.

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"This budget represents a significant victory for the millions of people who depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, jobs and quality of life," said Todd Ambs, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

Advocates developed a $20 billion wish list of environmental restoration needs a decade ago as scientists warned the lakes were reaching "tipping points" where festering ecological ailments would do irreversible damage.

President George W. Bush signed a bill calling for a wide-ranging cleanup but provided little money. President Barack Obama's administration developed the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2009, provided $475 million the first year and has sought about $300 million annually since then.

The program has pumped $1.3 billion into 1,700 grants for on-the-ground projects and research. They have restored wetlands and other wildlife habitat; advanced cleanups of harbors fouled with toxic industrial chemicals such as PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls; and supported efforts to reduce agricultural runoff that feeds runaway algae.

Millions of dollars have already been devoted to targeting the ravenous Asian carp by operating an electric barrier near Chicago. The funds also will pay crews to harvest the fish, an invasive species, in Illinois waters so they won't slip into Lake Michigan and compete with native species.

A parade of lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans from the eight Great Lakes states, protested when the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee proposed the deep cut in July. It was a show of bipartisan unity that starkly contrasted with the ideological warfare that caused a partial government shutdown in October.

Rep. David Joyce, an Ohio Republican and subcommittee member, said Tuesday that the restored funding was "a big win for our region because it helps ensure our Great Lakes will remain an economic powerhouse and source of job creation for years to come."

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said the measure would provide enough money to continue healing "one of our country's greatest treasures."