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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" right now.

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 commitment.

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 is reassuring.

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 Lakes policy."

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 protection.

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.

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