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Great Lakes need greater protection

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Updated: August 31, 2013 6:18AM

What kind of Congress gives farmers money whether they farm or not, but sees little need to protect precious drinking water for 30 million people?

When the Republican-controlled U.S. House was assembling giveaways this month on its lavish farm bill, the sky was the limit.

But when important federal programs to restore the Great Lakes’ ecological health came up, the House GOP suddenly couldn’t find a spare dime. Last week, a Republican-dominated panel voted to cut the programs by 80 percent. That’s on top of across-the-board cuts imposed by sequestration. Wiser heads in Congress need to block this effort.

At a Monday press conference at the 12th Street Beach, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called the proposed cuts “irresponsible.”

“The House’s funding cuts would cripple our ability to ward off Asian carp, clean up beaches contaminated by E. coli, and prevent polluted runoff from entering the Great Lakes,” Durbin said.

Created in 2009, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which covers eight states, started out with a $475 million appropriation, but that was cut to $300 million for two years and then to $285 million last year. The House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee now wants to cut that to $60 million. It also wants a drastic cut in a related low-interest loan fund that helps upgrade treatment facilities to keep sewage out of the lakes. Joel Brammier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says such large cuts would bring Great Lakes programs to a halt.

This makes no sense.

We’ve known for years the Great Lakes have a lot of problems. Sewage that gets into the lake forces beaches to close. Invasive species hurt the ecosystem and threaten some industries, such as sport and commercial fishing. Fertilizer-rich runoff causes algae blooms that kill other aquatic life. Toxic sludge in harbors and elsewhere discourages economic investment for shoreline communities.

But since 2005, when environmentalists and others laid out a $20 billion plan to restore the Great Lakes, progress has been made. For example, with the help of the GLRI and other programs, 575,000 cubic yards of toxic mud have been removed from the Grand Calumet River — once considered American’s most polluted waterway.

Stopping such work now on Great Lakes problems that have been building up for decades will only make it more costly in the end.

Many environmental and conservation programs are taking big hits in the federal budget process. But in comparison with other federal programs, the Great Lakes work is a small project that delivers big results.

Even some Republicans in the House are calling for a restoration of the Great Lakes funding. Congress should pay attention to them and allow the work to continue.

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