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Published: Thursday, 2/26/2009

Obama proposes $475M for Great Lakes restoration


TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. A plan hatched more than three years ago to heal the battered Great Lakes would get its first big infusion of federal cash under President Barack Obama's proposed budget.

The spending blueprint released Thursday includes a $475 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative led by the Environmental Protection Agency. It would target problems such as invasive species, runoff pollution, degraded wildlife habitat and contaminated bottomlands.

"EPA will coordinate with federal partners, states, tribes, localities and other entities to protect, maintain and restore the chemical, biological and physical integrity of the lakes," the agency said in a statement.

The budget also requests $3.9 billion nationwide for sewer and drinking water system upgrades. If distributed according to existing formulas, about $1.4 billion would go to the Great Lakes region, where overflows from degraded sewers are a primary ecological hazard.

It adds up to the biggest financial commitment any president has made to the lakes, said Jeff Skelding, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

"President Obama is truly a Great Lakes president," Skelding said. "It is clear he understands that unless America invests in the Great Lakes, these problems will get worse and the price we pay will be higher."

During his campaign last year, Obama pledged $5 billion toward implementing a restoration wish list released in December 2005 by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, a partnership of government agencies and advocacy groups. The Bush administration had requested the plan, which would cost more than $20 billion, but provided little funding.

Obama's budget proposal represents the first serious effort to begin paying for it, said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's regional office in Ann Arbor.

"In the past we've had to do it in bits and pieces," Buchsbaum said. "We've had authorization bills, pledges, concept papers. But this is the first time we've really seen the money."

During a Great Lakes Commission meeting this week in Washington, new EPA head Lisa Jackson told officials and activists from the region the administration intended to keep Obama's financial commitment.

"We've got the plan, we're ready to go," said Tim Eder, director of the interstate commission that promotes sustainable development of Great Lakes resources. "We just needed a partnership with the federal government. This is a terrific down payment, and it's the jump-start we've been waiting for."

Still to come is the battle for congressional approval, which is certain to be fierce as the Great Lakes package competes with other priorities at a time of soaring deficits and economic calamity.

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