Last year’s outbreak of toxic algae was worse than expected off the shores of western Lake Erie. Excessive phosphorus runoff and invasive carp also threaten the health of Lake Erie, the shallowest and most vulnerable of the Great Lakes.
Only a massive, methodical cleanup and stringent monitoring thereafter will reverse this decline. Full funding by Congress of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is crucial to both efforts.
Last month’s federal budget compromise leaves funding for the initiative in limbo. Lawmakers must restore — at least — the $300 million proposed for the initiative this year by a Jan. 15 deadline.
The initiative began in 2009, when President Obama properly declared restoration of the Great Lakes a national priority. Its original funding of $475 million a year helped clean up toxic substances in the lakes, combat invasive species, protect watersheds from pollution runoff, restore wetlands and natural habitats, and monitor these activities.
During last year’s budget negotiations, a Republican-led House subcommittee cut the proposed annual allocation for the Great Lakes Initiative to $60 million. The House brought that figure up to $210 million; the Senate sought $300 million.
Advocates cite more than 100 Great Lakes success stories the initiative has funded. Among them is the 139-acre Lake Erie Bluffs Park east of Cleveland, a project that protects wildlife on the shoreline and offers public access to an attractive beach. The initiative provided $1.6 million of the park’s $2.3 million cost.
In November, the initiative gave $500,000 to the Ohio Lake Erie Commission to study the effects of phosphorus and nitrogen pollution on algae growth in Lake Erie. The initiative also has funded restoration, monitoring, and cleanup efforts along the Ottawa River, the Swan Creek and Wolf Creek watersheds, Maumee Bay, Toledo Harbor, and Lake Erie shore, all within 10 miles of Toledo.
Overall, the initiative has spent more than $1.3 billion so far. That’s a modest investment compared with the 1.5 million jobs and $62 billion in annual wages that the Great Lakes sustain.
The initiative is “a strong example of government at its best,” says the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. Its mission cannot be dismissed as “lower-priority” or “nice to have” — descriptions that House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R., Ky.), applied to environmental and other programs that were gutted in the original spending bill his committee produced.
The health of the Earth’s largest group of freshwater lakes is high priority and must-have. Congress should give the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative at least $300 million, promptly.