Save the Great Lakes


The new federal budget includes $300 million more to restore the Great Lakes. Much of that money is earmarked to help clean up decades-old pollution of harbors and streams.

It sounds like a substantial sum, but it's not enough, even in a period of fiscal austerity. The Great Lakes deserve that investment and a lot more.

During his 2008 campaign, candidate Barack Obama pledged $5 billion in funding over a decade for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative -- the most comprehensive needs inventory ever for a regional watershed. The rationale is obvious: The Great Lakes account for 20 percent of Earth's fresh water.

The lakes are vital to North America's economy, and the primary source of drinking water for 30 million Americans. Fresh water is so valuable a global resource that national-security experts now examine what shortages mean for tensions in other parts of the world.

President George W. Bush launched the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2005, but did not fund it. Local elected officials and other interested parties identified more than $20 billion in needs. Mr. Obama's campaign pledge was an effort to get restoration efforts beyond the talking stage.

Congress must place a higher value on the lakes. Mr. Obama sought $350 million in funding in the 2012 budget, after getting $475 million and $299 million in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

Environmental groups said they were grateful lawmakers provided as much money to the initiative as they did. But while this year's funding level buys time, it is not cause for celebration.

The lakes continue to suffer from algae pollution and other ills. Yet the new budget cuts by 3.5 percent the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides federal grants to help local communities address chronic sewage overflows.

That fund is the largest in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget. But the eight Great Lakes states stand to receive $533 million, down from $552 million in fiscal 2011. Ohio's share comes to $82.5 million -- $3 million less.

The outcome could have been worse, yet Great Lakes funding continues to fall short. A Brookings Institution study shows that every dollar spent on Great Lakes restoration yields twice as much in economic impact. The lakes deserve every attempt to get meaningful funding back on track.