Obama proposes funding cut to Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

In Minnesota and Wisconsin, after decades of work trying to clean up the contaminated St. Louis River, a delisting of this Great Lakes “Area of Concern” is finally in sight.
A new action plan targets 2025 as the delisting date, with a price tag of up to $400 million to restore the river system — the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior and the largest Area of Concern in the Great Lakes.
But to execute the plan, state officials will be relying on federal dollars and, in particular, continued funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Launched five years ago, the historic initiative has thus far allocated $1.6 billion for projects that clean up degraded areas, prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species, and protect habitat.

The story of the St. Louis River is one of many examples of how the increased federal dollars are being or will be used.

“Not only has it led to environmental success stories across the Great Lakes region, but it’s had economic success stories as well,” says Todd Ambs, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

Nelson French of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency emphasized this point during a recent webinar hosted by the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus. Local leaders in Duluth, he said, are tying the St. Louis River cleanup to a revitalization of the neighborhoods surrounding it.

But will the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative be around to fund some of these long-term projects?

On the positive side, it continues to enjoy bipartisan support among the region’s congressional delegation However, every fiscal year, supporters have had to fight for funding, and that will again be the case in the coming year.

Under President Obama’s most recent budget proposal, funding would be cut from $300 million (FY 2014) to $275 million FY 2015. In response, Healing Our Waters circulated a letter urging congressional budget leaders to maintain funding at FY 2014 levels. As of late March, 46 U.S. House members had signed on to the letter.

President Obama launched the initiative in FY 2010, when it was funded at $475 million. Annual appropriations have since been cut by 36.8 percent, and as Ambs notes, the reductions could have been much worse. A congressional subcommittee voted last year to slash funding to $60 million.

While advocating higher levels of funding, supporters are also trying to get the initiative on more solid footing during the budget-making process. The proposed Great Lakes Ecological and Economic Protection Act would do that by specifically authorizing the initiative in federal law. (Right now, it is simply an administration initiative that Obama has included in each of his proposed budgets.)

About one-third of Restoration Initiative funding has gone to remediating Areas of Concern: parts of the Great Lakes basin designated by the U.S. and Canadian governments as environmentally degraded. Since the start of the initiative, 24 beneficial-use impairments have been delisted in these areas — more than twice as many as in the previous 22 years.

Ambs notes, too, that 100,000 acres of wetlands in the Great Lakes region have been protected over the past four years as a result of the Restoration Initiative.

Stateline Midwest ~ April 20142.17 MB