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Great Lakes Article:

$20 billion for protection of Great Lakes evaporates
By Michael Hawthorne
Chicago Tribune
Posted October 7, 2005

CHICAGO - 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 fresh water.

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 Great Lakes spending 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.

Northland environmental activists had been skeptical of the promised support. Connie Minnowa, executive director of the Duluth-based Environmental Association for Great Lakes Education, said the news is "disheartening." The administration had raised hopes in the Northland of a comprehensive Great Lakes cleanup when it announced the $20 billion plan in Duluth last July.

Even then, critics of the administration praised the science and effort behind the plan, but said the proof would come only when the plan was funded.

"There's no doubt that Rita victims and Katrina victims need our help, but there will always be some excuse not to pay to clean up our environment. The real problem is the cost of Bush's war, and we were just asking for a fraction of that to help restore the Great Lakes here at home," Minnowa said. "If it's not hurricanes next year, it will be something else with terrorism. It's a priority for millions of people around the Great Lakes to have a healthy environment and economy and safe water. It should be our government's priority, too."

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 $20 billion.

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 began in December with an elaborate Chicago ceremony featuring American Indian drummers, bagpipers and speeches from governors and Cabinet officials.

A spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality said the administration hasn't made a final decision. But 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.

"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 problems facing the lakes will cost considerably more to fix. For example, cleaning up 31 toxic hot spots around the lakes is estimated to cost up to $4.5 billion.

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.

"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."

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