Administration scales back plans to
protect, restore Great Lakes
By Michael Hawthorne
Posted on SunHerald.com on October 6, 2005
CHICAGO - (KRT) - After a year of promises to make the
Great Lakes a greater national priority, the Bush administration
is pulling back from an ambitious $20 billion plan to
restore and protect the world's largest source of freshwater.
Three months after the plan was released for public comment,
administration officials are finalizing a report to President
Bush that concludes federal spending on the Great Lakes
should remain "within current budget projections,"
meaning no new money should be allocated.
Instead, federal, state and local officials should concentrate
on "improving the efficiency and effectiveness of
existing programs," according to the draft report,
a copy of which was obtained by the Chicago Tribune.
Without the administration's support, Congress likely
won't endorse more aggressive - and more expensive - efforts
to clean up contaminated ports, fix aging sewer systems,
block invasive species and improve the shoreline. Legislation
calling for more spending on the Great Lakes already is
bottled up in House and Senate committees.
An electronic copy of the administration report, dated
Sept. 26, does not specifically mention the recent hurricanes
that devastated the Gulf Coast. But political leaders
and environmental activists throughout the Great Lakes
region have worried their goals would be sidetracked by
skyrocketing costs to clean up the hurricane damage.
"We're still in an era of post-Katrina sticker shock,"
said U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who is leading a bipartisan
group of lawmakers asking for $4 billion over five years
to tackle problems facing the lakes.
The administration is scaling back its plans even as
federal, state, tribal and local officials meet this week
in Rochester, N.Y., to discuss how best to spend the extra
Bush formed the group during his re-election campaign
last year and ordered it to hammer out a new restoration
plan within a year. The group's deliberations formally
began in December with an elaborate ceremony at the Chicago
Hilton and Towers featuring American Indian drummers,
bagpipers and speeches from Mayor Richard M. Daley, governors
and Cabinet officials.
A spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental
Quality said the administration hasn't made a final decision.
However, another administration official involved in the
deliberations said the report is nearly finalized and
reflects the views of many top federal officials.
"The federal government will consider the (Great
Lakes) plan an advisory document only, and will weigh
its recommendations against all other competing priorities
within the federal budget," the report states.
Kirk and other lawmakers from the region have been trying
to win more congressional support for their efforts to
improve the Great Lakes. They already are urging potential
presidential candidates to make the issue part of their
campaign agendas during the next election.
"As we enter a lame-duck presidency, the vision
of Congress becomes much more important," Kirk said.
"We'll take what we can get from the administration,
but we have to move forward."
For most of the past year, public pronouncements about
the Great Lakes from Bush administration officials have
suggested sweeping changes were in the works.
"The unique nature of these majestic lakes and their
role in the cultural, economic and environmental well-being
of our nation requires us to take bold action in their
defense," Stephen L. Johnson, administrator of the
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said when the proposed
restoration plan was released in July.
Three months later, the administration report says top
officials at the EPA and other federal agencies "have
serious concerns" about the wish list, which called
for $20 billion in new federal spending on the lakes during
the next 15 years.
The proposal "does not take into account the ongoing
federal, state, tribal and local investments in the Great
Lakes and how to focus those substantial resources to
maximize results," the memo states.
Federal programs related to the Great Lakes already will
cost about $5 billion during the next decade, according
to the memo.
Many of the problems facing the lakes will cost considerably
more to fix. Cleaning up 31 toxic hot spots around the
lakes is estimated to cost up to $4.5 billion alone.
The most expensive item on the wish list is nearly $14
billion to upgrade sewage systems in cities around the
Great Lakes. Beaches occasionally are closed around the
lakes following chronic sewage overflows. But financing
sewer improvements is a perennial battle in Congress.
For instance, the president's budget request this year
included no money to continue work on the Deep Tunnel
project, a system of tunnels and reservoirs in the Chicago
area that captures storm runoff and helps keep human and
industrial waste out of Lake Michigan.
Attempts to boost spending on the Great Lakes have been
hampered in part by a Government Accountability Office
report that found little coordination between federal
and state efforts and few ways to measure progress.
But after a year of debate, many of those involved in
efforts to improve existing programs say more money is
needed to help the lakes, the source of one-fifth of the
world's freshwater. They point to other multibillion-dollar
initiatives to restore the Everglades and Chesapeake Bay.
"I don't think we will bring the lakes back to health
with existing budgets," said Cameron Davis, executive
director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "There
is a significant national interest in the Great Lakes
that deserves a significant national investment."