Great Lakes in the spotlight: Election
year a good time to draw attention to precious state resource
Grand Rapids Press
Published September 1st, 2004
If there was ever a time to push for protection of the
Great Lakes in Washington, it's now. The steady stream
of presidential candidates and their supporters in the
state shows they are listening to our concerns, including
our worries about water. U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency Administrator Michael Leavitt noted on a visit
to Grand Rapids last week that Michigan and other "battleground
states" have great "regional throw weight"
Both President Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John
Kerry acknowledge the importance of the Great Lakes. But
campaign talk is not cash. How much money are they are
willing to devote to the task of restoring and maintaining
these fresh-water treasures? Election-year promises will
give way to business as usual in Washington once the votes
are counted. Our representatives will have to make sure
that whomever is elected president doesn't forget his
While here, Mr. Leavitt addressed crucial Great Lakes
questions, including invasive species, mercury contamination
from coal-burning power plants, raw sewage dumped into
rivers and streams and the need for more money for the
Superfund, which despite it's name is really the Underfund.
He struck the right note when asked about withdrawals
from the lakes. The Bush administration opposes diversions
of water from the Great Lakes, he told The Press editorial
board. Mr. Kerry's initial response to the issue raises
concerns that he was not as tuned into the question as
he should be. Last February he said the question of Great
Lakes water diversion requires a "delicate balancing
act" to provide for "national needs." He
quickly backtracked, stating through a spokesmen his "unequivocal"
opposition to diversions.
A former Utah governor, Mr. Leavitt is a veteran of the
West's water wars. Those skirmishes should remind everyone
around the Great Lakes of the need for vigilance. The
lakes contain 90 percent of the nation's fresh surface
water. How long before drought-stricken regions start
looking our way for a solution? Mr. Leavitt's recognition
that Michigan's water should be in Michigan's control
So is his commitment to cleaning up the lakes. A task
force put together by President Bush last May offers a
good start, provided that it is recognized as only the
beginning of a much broader strategy. Called the Great
Lakes Interagency Task Force, the group is to bring together
the many separate federal programs dealing with the lakes
and provide "strategic direction on federal Great
The reform is sorely needed. A report last year from
the U.S. General Accounting Office -- commissioned by
Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, among others -- found
potential duplication and wasted effort in Great Lakes
The report identified 33 federal and 17 state programs
spending more than $1.7 billion on Great Lakes restoration
over a nine-year period. Michigan accounts for 96 percent
of the state funding, attesting to the importance of the
lakes to our economy and life. But the programs operate
independently, for the most part, and their progress is
difficult to gauge.
The scattershot approach can be traced in part to the
many governments involved, including eight states and
two nations. In that sense, cleaning up the Great Lakes
is a more challenging task than other environmental Marshall
Plans, such as the $8 billion scrubbing of the Florida
Everglades. There, the federal and state governments are
the primary actors. Here, a more deliberate, multi-jurisdictional
approach will be needed -- a "regional collaboration
of national significance," as Mr. Leavitt put it.
Complexity, however, should be no excuse for complacency.
Once the task force's important work of evaluating and
coordinating is complete next year, Congress and the president
will have to engage in a brass-tacks discussion of money.
A bill backed by Mr. Ehlers and Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland,
would spend $4 billion on restoring the lakes. A Senate
version of the same bill, supported by Democratic Sens.
Debbie Stabenow of Lansing and Carl Levin of Detroit,
would spend $6 billion.
Finding the right level of funding will depend in part
on the task force's findings and recommendations. The
danger is that its conclusions will gather dust while
Congress dallies. Our representatives in Washington should
make sure that whoever wins the White House in November
has a financial commitment to the Great Lakes equal to
his election-year rhetoric.