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$300 million sought for Great Lakes cleanup

February 21, 2012 at 10:15 AM

The Associated Press

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — A federal push to heal the ailing Great Lakes would get another $300 million for fighting Asian carp, cleaning polluted harbors and making progress on other long-festering environmental problems under the budget submitted by President Barack Obama.

Congress has appropriated $1.075 billion for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative during the first three years of Obama’s presidency. The most recent installment has yet to be spent. But money from the program’s first two years has been divided among more than 600 projects across the region, from monitoring beaches for bacteria to researching how nuisance algae might be spreading deadly botulism among shore birds.

During his 2008 campaign, Obama called for devoting $5 billion to Great Lakes restoration over 10 years. To fulfill that goal would require annual installments of $500 million. Obama came up with $475 million his first year in office. But the totals have dropped to about $300 million a year since then as the economic downturn increased pressure to limit spending.

Lisa Jackson, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, said maintaining the current level for another year would be a significant accomplishment when many federal programs are being slashed or eliminated.

“Some difficult choices are being made in this budget,” Jackson said in a phone conference with reporters. But she described Obama’s commitment to the Great Lakes as “unwavering” and said the program was getting good results by creating partnerships with state, local and tribal agencies.

“We’re working across agencies to focus on ... real results in the Great Lakes ecosystem,” she said.

The Great Lakes initiative was developed from a wish list crafted over several years by scientists, advocacy groups, state officials and tribal representatives. It identified the region’s biggest environmental threats, including invasive species, toxic hot spots, urban and farm runoff and shrinking wildlife habitat.

More than 30 million people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. The lakes hold nearly one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water and more than 90 percent of the nation’s supply.

“We’re very pleased that the president is keeping restoration on track in the Great Lakes,” said Jeff Skelding, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which represents more than 100 environmental and conservation groups.

“The longer we wait, the more expensive it gets, so we’ll always hope for more,” Skelding said. “But given the budget challenges on a broader scale, we’re happy to be moving forward.”

The program has funded projects in all the region’s states — Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. But Jackson said priorities she outlined during a visit to Detroit last October would remain in place.

They include quickening cleanup of nine river mouths and harbors contaminated with industrial toxins; stepping up the fight to prevent Asian carp and other invasive species from reaching the lakes and reducing harm done by invaders already present; and nurturing three watersheds choked with algae blooms caused by runaway phosphorus levels.

The watersheds include the Maumee River in Ohio, which flows into Lake Erie; the Lower Fox River in Wisconsin, a tributary of Lake Michigan’s Green Bay; and Michigan’s Saginaw River, which goes to Lake Huron.

Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said Obama’s request was reasonable, “given the budget constraints that the president is operating under.”

Levin also praised the Army Corps of Engineers for its separate request of $24.5 million — an increase of about $900,000 from the previous year — to operate electric barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal designed to prevent Asian carp and other invasive species from migrating between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River systems.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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