A Great Lakes environmental fix-up is on shaky ground as President Barack Obama continues scaling back spending proposals and congressional Republicans push for even deeper cuts, supporters said Monday.
For the second consecutive year, Obama is seeking less for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative than the $475 million Congress approved at his request for 2010. He asked for $300 million for the current fiscal year, a total that remains in doubt as lawmakers continue wrangling over the 2011 budget.
His 2012 spending plan released Monday calls for $350 million. But with an assertive Republican majority in the House pushing to slash domestic programs, backers of the Great Lakes plan acknowledge tough odds.
"It's definitely in some trouble," said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, an agency representing the region's eight states. "We understand the pressures on the budget in Washington, but we're trying to send the message that this is a critical program that will put people to work while protecting and restoring the environment."
Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican and co-chairwoman of the House Great Lakes Task Force, said supporters of the initiative should expect disappointment.
"The unfortunate reality is that the country is facing a financial crisis," Miller told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "I'll continue to advocate for the Great Lakes, but we are going to have to make some difficult and painful budget cuts. I don't think it's realistic to think we will be held harmless."
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was crafted by government agencies and advocacy groups, which released a $20 billion wish list in 2005. It received little funding during the Bush administration. During his 2008 campaign, Obama pledged $5 billion over a decade.
The plan is designed to tackle the most serious of many problems that scientists say are damaging the lakes and threatening their tourism and fishing industries.
It would intensify cleanup of harbors and river mouths saturated with industrial toxins. Another priority is battling invasive species such as the Asian carp, a prolific fish threatening to overrun the lakes.
The plan also would reduce runoff pollution from farms, suburban lawns and urban parking lots while rebuilding wetlands and other wildlife habitat.
A 2007 Brookings Institution study said every dollar spent on the Great Lakes restoration would generate twice as much in economic activity. Wetlands restoration provides work for engineers, landscape designers and truck drivers. Cleaner water improves public health. Reducing pollution draws more tourists and outdoor sports enthusiasts.
"You don't get the kinds of results we're looking for without hiring people to make it happen," said Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which represents more than 115 advocacy groups.
One reason for optimism is the program's bipartisan support across the region, Skelding said. But Miller said the Great Lakes states don't have enough votes to stave off cuts while environmental programs benefiting other areas lose out.
"As disappointing as the decrease in funding levels for Great Lakes restoration might be, our job now is to fight hard against any further reductions in funding and hopefully to find a way to get back to the planned funding levels," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.
The House last year approved the $300 million Obama wanted for 2011, but Congress adjourned without enacting a budget. With the House now under GOP control, its Appropriations Committee last week proposed reducing the total to $225 million.
"There's certainly a political will to continue the program at some level, even if we don't get 100 percent of what we want and solve it all as quickly as we'd thought," Miller said.
Eder said Great Lakes cleanup "will get more expensive if we continue to delay and defer."