$20 billion for protection of Great
By Michael Hawthorne
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
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
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
"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."