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Restore funding to protect health of the Great Lakes

Dawn comes over Lake Michigan en route perch outing from Waukegan Harbor. Credit: Dale Bowman

Dawn comes over Lake Michigan en route to a perch outing from Waukegan Harbor. Credit: Dale Bowman

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Updated: February 7, 2014 6:04AM

For the sake of our beaches, dunes and drinking water, restoring funding for the protection and revitalization of the Great Lakes should be a top priority when Congresst returns to work this week.

Last month, federal lawmakers surprised nearly everyone by finally agreeing on a budget that raises the cap on so-called discretionary spending. That budget was their general blueprint, and when they get back to town on Monday, they will start passing appropriations bills that sort out who gets what. Environmentalists are calling for using part of that money to raise spending on Great Lakes restoration to $300 million for 2014, the level it was at before across-the-board sequestration cuts drove it down to $285 million. Congress should do so.

Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes are jewels of incalculable value, but decades of neglect have allowed environmental traumas to fester. Starting with the 2010 fiscal year, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has provided funding to clean up toxic pollution, restore natural habitats, reduce pollution runoff into the lakes and combat invasive species. Toxic mud was removed from the Grand Calumet River; Waukegan Harbor, once full of polluted sludge, was put on the road to recovery, and dunes and aquatic habitat were restored at the 63rd Street beach. Waste dumped elsewhere into the lakes more than a century ago was dredged up and taken away.

But protecting federal funding is crucial to the future of the lakes. Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says little progress was made on cleaning up the lakes until the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was created.

“We are seeing advances made in removing some of the worst pollution in the Great Lakes from the 20th century, projects that have been on the books for decades but not a single shovel was lifted until GRI dollars were available,” he said.

In all, the federal government has spent $1.3 billion on more than 1,700 projects. But when funding was cut, so was the pace of the restoration work, just as it was starting to make a dent in the backlog of problems. Most of the 43 sites with the worst environmental degradation have yet to be cleaned up.

The remaining worksheet of environmental priorities is long. In Chicago, for example, we need to reduce the number of days with beach closings due to pollution, and we need to prevent invasive Asian carp from moving into the lake from area waterways. Next week, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is due to release recommendations for dealing with the carp, and it’s likely the options it suggests will be costly. For the most part, lawmakers from Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin whose districts border the lakes have been supportive. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., both are calling for setting 2014 Great Lakes funding at $300 million in the Interior and Environment Appropriations bill.

But there’s no guarantee Congress will rally to the aid of the lakes. Last summer, Senate leaders wanted $300 million for the program, but House leaders wanted to cut that all the way down to $60 million. A replay of that this month would be disastrous.

The Great Lakes provide bucolic sites for recreation, drinking water, jobs, natural habitat, a commercial fishing industry and transportation. Their environmental health is important to everyone in the region.

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