To protect Great Lakes, advocates say, protecting six-year-old federal Restoration Initiative must be a top priority

Over the last six years, nearly $2 billion has flowed from Washington, D.C., in support of more than 2,000 Great Lakes-related projects. Much progress has been made under the historic Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, says Todd Ambs of the Healing Our Waters Coalition, but it’s far from a job done.

“It’s really just a down payment,” Ambs says about federal spending to date. “When you’re talking about what needs to be done to restore the Great Lakes, this initiative needs to go on for years.”

President Obama created the program early in his presidency, building on work that had been done by his predecessor, George W. Bush, through the Great Lakes Regional Collaborative. In each of his proposed annual budgets since fiscal year 2010, Obama has included a line item to fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. But will the initiative continue once he leaves office?
The U.S. Congress could improve the program’s chances of surviving a change in administration by formally authorizing it in federal law. Ambs and other Great Lakes advocates say such a move would put the initiative on much more solid footing during the annual budget-making process.
Late last year, the U.S. House approved such authorization of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, but the Senate did not take up the measure before adjourning for the year. Authorization bills have once again been introduced early in 2015. Meanwhile, several members of Congress from this region are leading opposition to a proposed cut in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for FY 2016. 

That reduction comes from Obama himself; hisproposed FY 2016 budget would allocate $250 million to the initiative. It received $300 million in FY 2015. (Obama’s initial FY 2015 budget also called for a funding cut, to $275 million, but Congress restored funding in its final budget agreement.)        
“There is very strong bipartisan support to restore the funding levels [to $300 million],” Ambs says. “And I think that’s not only because of what we’re seeing in terms of environmental restoration [in the region], but also what the initiative is doing economically.”

As examples, he cites the impact on local communities of cleaning up the Sheboygan River in Wisconsin, the St. Louis River in Minnesota and Waukegan Harbor in Illinois. Regionwide, According to the Healing Our Waters Coalition, the initiative has: 

  • restored more than 115,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat; 
  • opened up fish access to more than 3,400 miles of rivers;
  • helped farmers (in combination with other programs) implement conservation programs on more than 1 million acres of rural working lands; and
  • accelerated the cleanup of toxic hot spots by delisting three formerly contaminated sites (in the previous two decades before the initiative, only one site had been delisted).
In the past, members of the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus (a nonpartisan group of state and provincial legislators from the region) have written letters of support for formal authorization and opposition to funding cuts. They are likely to weigh in again this year.
Stateline Midwest - March 20151.65 MB