DETROIT — At a time when many government programs are fighting for survival, there’s one place the money is still flowing for now: the Great Lakes.
In the past two years, Congress has pumped $775 million into the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a plan to deal with problems scientists say could turn the world’s largest freshwater system into an ecological wasteland: industrial pollution, invasive species, an unraveling food web, watersheds fouled by massive algae blooms, disappearing wildlife habitat.
President Barack Obama requested an additional $350 million in his 2012 budget, but nothing is certain with lawmakers deeply divided over spending. The future is even murkier, worrying supporters who say big cash infusions will be needed for many years to heal the ailing freshwater seas and the streams that feed them.
“We know these problems aren’t going away on their own, and they’re likely to get even more expensive as time goes by,” said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, an agency representing the eight states and two Canadian provinces in the region.
The commission is helping coordinate a conference for Great Lakes scientists, government officials and advocacy groups this week in Detroit, where the restoration program’s long-term prospects will be a hot topic.
For now, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments are busily handing out program grants. More than 650 proposals have been approved, from surveying habitat for threatened bog turtles in New York to evaluating ways to control mercury emissions at iron ore processing facilities in Minnesota.
Beaches are being scoured for E. coli contamination and toxins are being tracked in 59 Great Lakes tributaries. Egg Harbor, Wis., will limit parking lot runoff into Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. University of Notre Dame researchers will study ways to prevent bait shops from unwittingly helping dreaded Asian carp reach the Great Lakes.
“This program was created from scratch two years ago, and it’s already making a significant difference,” said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office.
The initiative was developed from a wish list crafted by government agencies, advocacy groups and scientists in 2005. President George W. Bush signed legislation to start the program but provided little financial support. During his 2008 campaign, Obama pledged $5 billion over a decade. Bigger yearly sums will be needed to reach that goal.
Backers are guardedly optimistic the money will keep coming. One reason: Despite losing House seats to the Sun Belt in recent decades, the Great Lakes region still has serious clout when its representatives stick together. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has drawn support from Democrats and Republicans who agree on little else.
When a committee in the GOP-controlled House proposed slashing the 2012 appropriation for the program to $250 million, Republican Steve LaTourette of Ohio proposed adding $50 million. His amendment was approved, although the bill hasn’t come up for a final vote.
“The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is something that’s working and I give the president great credit for that,” LaTourette said Tuesday. “It deserves as much money as we can put together.”
Still, supporters fear it could become a political target.
Buchsbaum says an ominous sign came during a recent Senate subcommittee hearing where he testified about the growing problem of excessive phosphorus and other nutrients along shorelines in Lakes Erie and Michigan. They’re creating the worst outbreaks of toxic algae since the 1960s – making conditions miserable for swimmers, creating a “dead zone” in Lake Erie with too little oxygen for fish to live and contributing to botulism poisoning of fish, gulls and loons.
Senators appeared concerned, Buchsbaum said. But he watched in frustration as an EPA official’s appearance triggered an avalanche of Republican complaints about heavy-handed government regulation, the problem of nutrient pollution all but forgotten.
Lana Pollack, chairwoman of the U.S. section of the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian organization that advises both governments about boundary water issues, said even with bipartisan support the Great Lakes program could fall victim to “extraordinary bickering” in Washington.
“If this becomes all about `Gotcha EPA,’ the lakes could get caught in that crossfire and lost,” Pollack said.
LaTourette said the program isn’t vulnerable because of partisanship or its association with EPA. A bigger concern is that “some folks from down South and out West don’t necessarily see the Great Lakes as the resource that we do,” he said.
Advocates and government officials agree to ward off attacks, the program must be well-run, with no “bridge to nowhere” scandals that would become symbols of wasteful spending. And it must get visible, measureable results.
But opinions differ on spending priorities. Scientists want more money for research. Others favor pumping every available dollar into what Eder calls “on-the-ground actions.”
“We need to make sure the money is resulting in shovels being turned, sediments being removed and fish habitat being restored, not sitting in some federal agency’s bank account,” he said.
EPA officials recently awarded $6.6 million in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants designed specifically to put unemployed people to work – uprooting invasive plants, stabilizing stream banks and creating habitat for the endangered Kirtland’s warbler and massasauga rattlesnake.
All those ideas have merit, said biologist Joseph Koonce of Case Western Reserve University, a member of a scientific panel evaluating the restoration program for EPA. But he said too little money has gone to studies that could determine whether projects are succeeding.
“You could end up spending money on the wrong thing, and you’ll never know that if you don’t spend money to find out,” Koonce said.
Monitoring the effectiveness of the Great Lakes initiative will be crucial for convincing lawmakers and taxpayers to provide the billions needed to help the waters recover from more than a century of mistreatment, said Don Scavia, a University of Michigan scientist.
“Ecological restoration may not be all that visible,” Scavia said. “It will be hard to measure progress on a one-year budget cycle – or a two-year election cycle.”