House panel wants deep cut in Great Lakes program
A bighead carp, a species of the invasive Asian carp, swims in an exhibit at the John Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. The proposed cuts would affect funding for warding off invasive species such as Asian carp. (News-Review file photo / July 24, 2013)
The panel approved a bill Tuesday that would spend just $60 million on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, nearly 80 percent less than the $285 million in this year’s budget.
The Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council has been able to put the restoration initiative funds to use. Currently, the Little Traverse Bay stormwater project uses money from the program.
“There has been a lot of money that has come directly to our area,” said Jennifer McKay, policy specialist for the Petoskey organization. “We’ve made good, on-the-ground positive progress toward protecting our water resources, and we’re just a very, very small portion of the amount of money that’s gone out.”
Tip of the Mitt has also worked on projects with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. The tribe used the Great Lakes funding to install a boat wash station at Paradise Lake in northern Emmet County, which has been plagued by Eurasian milfoil.
The program is designed to make progress on some of the region’s most longstanding ecological problems, such as invasive species, harbors polluted with toxic sediments, harmful algae blooms and loss of wildlife habitat.
“The projects become more difficult and more expensive the longer we wait,” said McKay.
Before President Barack Obama authorized the program’s funding in 2009, McKay said money for projects came from state and federal grants as well as private donations and member dollars.
“There were other funding sources, but there has been a huge list of projects across the Great Lakes basin that have not been completed because there hasn’t been a dedicated source of funding,” said McKay.
McKay said Tip of the Mitt was recently discussing projects it would seek grants for during the next Great Lakes Restoration cycle, and that the organization was hoping to apply for funds to slow the spread of invasive species.
Leaders of groups that support the initiative say the cut would devastate a program that has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress.
The bill also proposes an 80 percent cut in a loan fund for local sewer system upgrades.
The rollbacks are part of a broader spending bill that would implement the second year of “sequestration” cuts required after Congress failed to agree on a budget. The House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee sent the measure to the full Appropriations Committee.
It’s one of 12 bills under consideration to fund day-to-day operations of government agencies. It could be revised substantially during negotiations this fall and likely would face a veto threat from Obama even if it cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Still, the proposed reduction is by far the deepest yet sought for the restoration initiative, and groups that have championed the program said they were alarmed.
“Cuts of this magnitude would bring Great Lakes programs to a halt,” said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Even during a time of belt tightening, he said, “what’s mystifying to me is these programs seem to be singled out for disproportionate treatment.”
After an initial $475 million in 2009, the restoration initiative has gotten about $300 million a year, although this year’s total has fallen to $285 million because of across-the-board cuts. The subcommittee bill would slash the 2014 allocation to just $60 million.
The Great Lakes region historically has received about one-third of the money in the federal loan fund for sewer repairs. Sewer overflows cause local officials to order beach closings each year because of E. coli bacteria contamination. The bill would reduce the fund from just over $1 billion this year to $250 million in 2014.
“The Great Lakes is one of the jewels of the United States and it’s imperative we protect it for its environmental significance but also because of its economic might,” Rep. Dave Joyce, an Ohio Republican and member of the subcommittee, said in a news release announcing the bill introduction. “Studies have shown more than 1.5 million jobs are directly connected to these five lakes, generating $62 billion in wages.”
A spokeswoman for Joyce told The Associated Press he will offer an amendment next week during a meeting of the full committee that would “significantly” boost Great Lakes spending. Another Republican, Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan, co-chairwoman of the House Great Lakes Task Force, said she didn’t support the subcommittee’s cuts and would push to restore funding.
The restoration initiative has pumped about $1.3 billion into projects across the eight-state region that have helped scrape away contaminated harbor sediments, restored wildlife habitat and sought to curb runoff that causes harmful algae. It also has supported efforts to ward off an invasion by the dreaded Asian carp, which compete with native species for food.
Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican and the subcommittee chairman, said the bill “makes very difficult choices in an extremely tough budget environment. In order to fund critical ‘must-do’ priorities, like human health, public safety, and treaty obligations and responsibilities, we’ve had to reduce and even terminate some programs that are popular with both members of Congress and the American people.”
Republicans from Idaho, California, Oklahoma, Georgia, Washington, Ohio and California and Democrats from Virginia, Minnesota, Maine and New York sit on the committee.