Obama rolls out plan for Great Lakes

9/17/2008
BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Obama
Obama

The Obama-Biden campaign yesterday rolled out a five-point plan for improving the Great Lakes, including a commitment of $5 billion to help the region move faster on sewage work and other overdue projects that were identified in an unprecedented needs inventory in 2005.

Although far short of the $20 billion of work identified under the Bush-led initiative called the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, a $5 billion pledge would be one of the nation's largest investments in a single ecosystem since Congress authorized $8 billion in 2000 for the Florida Everglades.

The announcement, made by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle set off a predictable flurry of reactions from both sides.

One of the most strident lobbying coalitions enjoyed its view of the political catfight.

'The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition welcomes the attention that Great Lakes restoration is generating from both major party presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama,' said Jeff Skelding, the coalition's national campaign director.

'Our position has been, and will continue to be, that the next president needs to take decisive action to confront the serious threats facing the Great Lakes before the problems get worse and more costly,' he said. 'This support should include fully funding in five years the comprehensive effort to restore the Great Lakes, as delay will only exacerbate the problems and cost American taxpayers more money.'

The eight Great Lakes states, especially Ohio, are seen as potential swing states for what is expected to be a tight race for the White House.

Healing Our Waters was created in response to the needs inventory that President Bush called for in May, 2004, amid much fanfare. The following December, he signed an executive order that gave 1,500 participants, including tribal leaders and governors, a year to assess the lake region's infrastructure.

Ms. Stabenow yesterday described those events as 'lip service,' a publicity stunt in key states for Mr. Bush as his campaign against Democratic challenger John Kerry intensified four years ago.

The administration, reeling from rising costs from the war in Iraq and the backlash it faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, refused to fund the initiative.

It did, however, make a commitment to the lakes by recommending funding at or near the $50 million maximum for a separate program, the Great Lakes Legacy Act, one that deals almost exclusively with toxic harbor sediment.

Congress, though, rarely has funded that program at levels that Mr. Bush has requested.

Healing Our Waters, which had its third annual conference in Milwaukee last week,

never has let the Bush Administration forget its failure to fund its own initiative.

With the support of major foundation grants, the coalition has grown from 55 zoos, aquariums, museums, environmental groups, and hunting and fishing organizations to more than 100.

Ms. Stabenow said she was proud to have a Great Lakes senator from her party as a candidate for the White House, someone who is focused on how to keep the lakes from being 'under attack' through neglect.

Mr. Bush also has come under fire for cutting back on the Clean Water State Revolving Fund each of his eight years in office. That fund is the bread-and-butter account for sewage improvements nationwide, the largest account in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget.

Of the $20 billion of needs identified for the Great Lakes in 2005, more than half were for better sewage treatment.

'It's been four years of empty promises,' Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat who is chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, said of the Bush-led needs inventory for the lakes.

The five points in the Obama proposal include the money for restoration work, plus the creation of a Great Lakes coordinator to streamline efforts of federal, state, and local agencies.

It calls for an increased focus on reducing toxic hotspots and mercury pollution as well as invasive species.

It promises Mr. Obama will sign into law the proposed water compact among the eight Great Lakes states as well as help governors implement it. The regional compact, which seeks to curb diversions outside of the basin, has been approved by the U.S. Senate and is awaiting approval by the House.

The McCain campaign said its candidate is an advocate of the lakes, too. Without offering specifics, it accused Mr. Obama of offering a wasteful plan.

'John McCain is committed to supporting the Great Lakes Restoration [plan], and his long record of working in a bipartisan manner is exactly what is needed to bring about real reform,' Paul Lindsay, a McCain campaign spokesman, said.

'The Obama solution, like always, throws taxpayers' money at the problem, but offers no record or experience to prove he can solve it. Barack Obama might talk about the Great Lakes, but John McCain has the experience to get the job done.'

A similar statement was issued jointly by the state Republican Party chairmen of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.