NEARLY lost in the turmoil over health care is another Obama Administration initiative which promises to be critically important in the long run, especially to our region: The President's quiet and steady insistence on environmentally repairing the Great Lakes, which are, by far, the most important source of water in the entire hemisphere.
President Obama asked Congress earlier this year for an added $475 million for Great Lakes cleanup and restoration, the largest single investment ever of its kind. Earlier this summer the House of Representatives approved that entire sum. The Senate is likely to vote later this month, and may trim that amount slightly, though the full appropriation could well be restored by conference committee. In fact, though concern about the growing deficit is understandable, the Senate shouldn't reduce the President's request by a dime.
The lakes are in danger, from threats that range from lingering industrial pollution to vanishing wetlands. But most of all, their ecology - and ours - is seriously threatened by continuing assaults from invasive species.
Most people know about the zebra mussels that expensively clog up drains throughout the region, but the tiny quagga mussels may be even more of a threat. They nest on the lake bed and consume so many primary food sources that the recreational fishing industry in Lake Huron has already been deeply affected, as have local economies. Fortunately, President Obama, who was a U.S. senator from Illinois, gets it, possibly because he is the first president since Gerald Ford who is from our region.
Among the encouraging aspects of the President's program is that all the new money would be under the control of one authority, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That's important, because it should help prevent it from being frittered away among many bureaucracies and little projects.
All this has made those who care about the lakes cautiously optimistic. Robert Burns, who heads the Detroit branch of the Riverkeeper Alliance, calls the bill "a major down payment on repairing the Great Lakes." But he is quick to add that as valuable as the $475 million would be, it isn't enough. Environmental experts have estimated it will take $20 billion to restore the ravaged Great Lakes to where they need to be to get us through the future.
The House bill, in fact, indicates the President is thinking in terms of at least a five-year spending plan. That may involve what sounds like a huge sum, but one that is clearly worth it. Auto companies may be able to bounce back after bankruptcy, but if we screw up the Great Lakes beyond repair, we may be finished as a region, if not as a species.
Incidentally, President Obama's plan should also help local economies; the EPA says it intends to rely on community and state agencies to get the job done. This is a bill that the Senate should improve, and which should be put in place, without delay.
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