Bush budget cuts Great Lakes funds


WASHINGTON - Although President Bush says he's committed to helping the Great Lakes, his administration continues to seek cuts in the federal government's basic fund for sewage work - arguably the region's most important source of revenue for lake improvements.

Sewage work was the biggest-ticket item identified in Mr. Bush's Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy, a year-long inventory assembled in 2005 by 1,500 public officials and stakeholders.

Mr. Bush created it by executive order in May, 2004. Of the $20 billion of work identified, more than half pertains to sewage needs.

Yet the Bush Administration and Congress have whittled away money for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's national Clean Water State Revolving Fund in each of the last few years.

That fund is the main source of federal money that states use to help municipalities finance sewer projects, including Toledo's unprecedented $450 million in sewage improvements due to be phased in by 2015.

Bob Stevenson, who oversees such work as director of the Toledo Waterways Initiative, said the federal cuts shouldn't affect the Toledo program right now because loans have already been secured for the next four years.

"And speculating what Washington will do beyond four years is just that - speculation," he said.

In its budget proposal presented to Congress on Monday, the Bush Administration called for the national sewage fund to get $688 million.

The Ohio Environmental Council notes that it is a cut of $312 million from the 2007 fiscal year budget that Congress recently adopted and $578 million less than the amount provided in fiscal year 2004.

"Ohio is the wrong place and now is the wrong time to cut investments to clean air and water," Keith Dimoff, the group's deputy director, said.

The 2008 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The proposed cuts to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund again are among the steepest being contemplated in the federal EPA's overall budget.

"The short story is the President's budget leaves the Great Lakes treading water at a time they need a full-scale rescue," said Jeff Skelding, of the National Wildlife Federation. "The level of commitment to restore the lakes is simply absent."

Emily Green, of the Sierra Club's Great Lakes office, said it's "really quite clear the President's budget will not get us to where we want to go, especially with sewage."

"It's amazing that in 2007 we can still have sewage flowing directly into the world's largest freshwater sources," she said.

The U.S. EPA's Ben Grumbles, assistant administrator of water, said in a prepared statement that the Bush Administration remains committed to restoring the lakes.

Despite cuts in some areas, it has requested $500 million for various Great Lakes water programs, including $57 million to reduce toxins, protect wetlands, and clean up sediments, he said.

A U.S. EPA news release on Monday said the agency is in line to get more than it ever has for enforcement, nearly $550 million nationally.

Staff writer Tom Henry contributed to this report.