The Great Lakes is the world’s largest freshwater system, comprising 90 percent of America’s and 20 percent of the earth’s fresh water. Thirty-five million people live right by the lakes, and they generate billions of dollars for the tourism, fishing and shipping industries. But the lakes are also home to toxic pollution, ecologically ravaged wetlands, and at least 185 non-native species. The federal government has never settled on a policy that takes into account both the lakes’ grand economic promise and their mounting environmental problems. And now the latest initiative is being cut before it can really get started.
“We’re like the poor sisters of what goes on in Washington, D.C.,” says Jim Diana, a director of the University of Michigan Sea Grant program, which receives federal money to work on Great Lakes ecological issues.
It’s not so much that Great Lakes restoration is underfunded. It’s that Washington seems to view restoration projects as luxuries that can be increased or cut depending on the political moment. The current Beltway focus on fiscal austerity has again hurt the residents, scientists, policymakers, and even major corporations whose livelihoods come from the Great Lakes.
Changing policy in midstream
The first budget of Barack Obama’s presidency included a $475 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). This was an unprecedented financial and institutional commitment involving sixteen federal agencies. Obama even named a Great Lakes “czar” – Cameron Davis, former head of the Alliance of the Great Lakes Conservation Group. Obama’s most recent budget proposal, though, cuts funding for the initiative to $350 million.
Obama budget director Jacob Lew went so far as to single out the Great Lakes program in a New York Times op-ed on the need to cut so-called domestic discretionary spending. Discretionary spending is just 12 percent of the federal budget — the amount that doesn’t go toward national security or entitlement programs Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid. Lew described GLRI as a program that, “absent the fiscal situation” – a $10.4 trillion deficit projected over the next decade – “we would not cut.”
House Republicans, meanwhile, passed a budget that would cut GLRI funding down to $225 million. The president and Congress cannot even agree on a budget resolution for the rest of this fiscal year, much less a plan for FY 2012. But the basic decision has already been made: Great Lakes restoration will lose somewhere between 25 percent of its funding (in the Obama proposal) and 50 percent of its funding (in the Republican plan).
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is, in essence, a delayed response to five years of research, including a 2004 federal task force report and a 2007 Brookings Institution study that examined toxic clean-ups and habitat restoration needs. The Brookings study concluding that each government dollar spent would see a return investment of two dollars. Money would be generated by things like fewer beach closings, better commercial fishing markets, and the increased value of lakefront property.
So when Congress approved $475 million toward GLRI in 2009, states, cities, conservation groups and academic institutions had specific clean-up plans in place. “For the most part we know what the problems are and we know what the fixes are,” says Great Lakes project “czar” Davis, whose official title is Environmental Protection Agency senior administrator for the Great Lakes. “We just need the money.”
In the Obama administration’s $475 million, funding was divided into five main areas. Obama officials targeted about $150 million to cleaning up toxic areas, like parts of the Cuyahoga River that connect to Lake Erie. About $100 million was to protect habitat for species like like lake trout and piping sturgeon. Another $100 million was targeted to shoreline stabilization and pollution prevention. Around $60 million is slated for research and, lastly, $60 million is aimed at the prevention and removal of invasive species.
One potential invasive species is Asian carp. Weighing up to 50 pounds and with no natural predators, these carp have swum up the Mississippi to the Chicago River by Lake Michigan. Michigan’s Congressional delegation and state officials say that the carp will ruin their state’s fishing industry and they have sued Illinois to close a lock that connects Chicago waterways to Lake Michigan. Illinois officials counter that closing the locks will destroy their state’s shipping industry. Through GLRI, EPA transferred money to the Army Corps of Engineers and Indiana Department of Natural Resources to create a temporary barrier between rivers connected to Lake Michigan. But the Army Corps has not devised a more long-term plan for the carp, and they are now working on a study scheduled for completion in — don’t hold your breath — 2015.
GLRI was intended to make Great Lakes restoration a permanent part of the federal government’s portfolio. And even with projects that have spent years in the pipeline, implementing brand new initiatives is still a gradual process. “EPA suddenly got all this money and didn’t have the people to do the restoration,” says Diana. “Our project was spawning fish in the Great Lakes and monitoring its success — [but] the funding was so delayed.” In that vein, Davis says that GLRI focuses on “two categories of accomplishments: ecological accomplishments and changing institutionally.”
All politics is regional
“We’re not that far removed from the period where the Great Lakes were just sort of a conveyance for pollution and commerce,” says Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It was a convenient way to get rid of waste.” Serious Great Lakes improvement programs started in the 1990s, when $1.7 billion was spent on federal and state programs, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation. But a 2003 Congressional report concluded that there was little coordination between various clean-up efforts. So in 2004 the Bush administration convened a task force that, according to the Detroit Free Press, was made up of “more than 1,500 people on nine teams, including everyone from governors to anglers.” The Bush team recommended spending $20 billion on Great Lakes clean-up – but no major action was taken.
The 2004 assessment, and the 2007 Brookings study did, however, provide a point of reference, and elements of each were incorporated into Obama’s campaign promise of a $5 billion long-term investment toward the lakes. Midwest conservationists – and even some polluters – embraced Obama’s investment. “Everyone in the region was very supportive of the $475 million in fiscal year in 2010,” says Evelyn Bader, spokesman of the Council of Great Lakes Industries, which represents companies like British Petroleum, DuPont, and Dow Chemical. “This is the one thing that most of the groups in the region are pretty well unified on.”
Industry’s support has led to a criticism that money was not accompanied by tough new environmental regulations, particularly on ships that dump pollution at sea. Henry Henderson, Midwest director of NRDC, has spoken of “deficiencies in governance that goes beyond funding.” Evelyn Bader counters that there is so much catching up to do that new initiatives should start even without new legal requirements. “There are so many projects that didn’t happen because $475 million didn’t cover it,” says Bader. “The first number thrown out was $5 billion – so there is a lot that can be done.”
NRDC’s criticism should not be confused with a rejection of the federal money; it’s an acknowledgment of the work ahead. “We need to be focused on the outcomes,” says Mogerman of NRDC. “How do we keep the lakes clean and ensure that this is going to be a valuable resource for generations? Let’s not just stare at the dollars.” But unreliable funding undermines GLRI. “There is a lot of confusion over the funding,” admits Davis. “For FY 2012 the House came in with a proposal for $225 million and we don’t know where that is going to land. We don’t even know where the FY 2011 budget is going to land.”
Stuck At Sea
In its funding limbo, GLRI resembles other domestic discretionary programs, such as cuts in federal grants to human service agencies or reduced spending on public broadcasting. The Obama administration mantra since the 2010 State of the Union Address is that the national deficit calls for a freeze in domestic spending. The federal government must “start doing what families and businesses have done during the downturn: tightening our belts,” wrote Lew in the Times op-ed.
Not only does this run counter to the Keynesian approach Obama used in his first year as president, using government deficit spending to stimulate an economy that then, and now, has high unemployment and low demand. It also signals a poor understanding of how “discretionary” spending can really make a difference in people’s lives. Obama, congressional Republicans, and most Democrats as well have zeroed in on a certain flavor of domestic spending – money that mainly goes to environment, labor, schools, and public health and safety. This is the money that every president since Ronald Reagan has targeted for cuts. While billions of dollars in waste and cost overruns in Medicare and the military go largely unaddressed, funding for economically productive and environmentally sustainable programs fall under the budget axe.
GLRI is a new initiative. To make it work – with whatever budget ends up being provided – sixteen federal agencies must figure out what the government can and cannot do to make a difference. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, is spending years studying the Great Lakes problem. What if the FY2012 or FY2013 budget zeroes out funding for that study? And GLRI is intended to establish a strategic direction for EPA and another major environmental focus for the federal government. This cannot happen without some consistency in support from an Obama administration that had the determination to create the program in the first place. GLRI will be cut back to address the long-term budget deficit. But reductions in this program are short-sighted.