TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Federal programs designed to make headway on some of the Great Lakes' most longstanding ecological problems, from harbors caked with toxic sludge to the threat of an Asian carp attack, would lose about 80 percent of their funding under a spending plan approved Tuesday by a Republican-controlled U.S. House panel.
The measure would hammer the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has enjoyed bipartisan support since President Barack Obama established it in 2009, based on a priority list endorsed four years earlier by President George W. Bush. Also targeted for a drastic reduction is a low-interest loan fund that helps local governments upgrade aging sewage treatment systems.
The rollbacks are part of a broader spending bill that would implement the second year of "sequestration" cuts required after Congress failed to agree on a budget. The House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee sent the measure to the full Appropriations Committee.
It's one of 12 bills under consideration to fund day-to-day operations of government agencies. It could be revised substantially during negotiations this fall and likely would face a veto threat from Obama even if it cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Still, the proposed reduction is by far the deepest yet sought for the restoration initiative, and groups that have championed the program said they were alarmed.
"Cuts of this magnitude would bring Great Lakes programs to a halt," said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Even during a time of belt tightening, he said, "what's mystifying to me is these programs seem to be singled out for disproportionate treatment."
After an initial $475 million in 2009, the restoration initiative has gotten about $300 million a year, although this year's total has fallen to $285 million because of across-the-board cuts. The subcommittee bill would slash the 2014 allocation to just $60 million.
The Great Lakes region historically has received about one-third of the money in the federal loan fund for sewer repairs. Sewer overflows cause local officials to order beach closings each year because of E. coli bacteria contamination. The bill would reduce the fund from just over $1 billion this year to $250 million in 2014.
"When we first saw these numbers, I could only surmise that perhaps somebody had miscounted and thought there was only one Great Lake," said Todd Ambs, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.
Ironically, the subcommittee's action came the same day that a bipartisan group of House members introduced legislation that would reauthorize the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Environmental Protection Agency office that oversees Great Lakes programming.
"The Great Lakes is one of the jewels of the United States and it's imperative we protect it for its environmental significance but also because of its economic might," Rep. Dave Joyce, an Ohio Republican and member of the subcommittee, said in a news release announcing the bill introduction. "Studies have shown more than 1.5 million jobs are directly connected to these five lakes, generating $62 billion in wages."
A spokeswoman for Joyce told The Associated Press he will offer an amendment next week during a meeting of the full committee that would "significantly" boost Great Lakes spending. Another Republican, Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan, co-chairwoman of the House Great Lakes Task Force, said she didn't support the subcommittee's cuts and would push to restore funding.
The restoration initiative has pumped about $1.3 billion into projects across the eight-state region that have helped scrape away contaminated harbor sediments, restored wildlife habitat and sought to curb runoff that causes harmful algae. It also has supported efforts to ward off an invasion by the dreaded Asian carp, which compete with native species for food.
Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican and the subcommittee chairman, said the bill "makes very difficult choices in an extremely tough budget environment. In order to fund critical 'must-do' priorities, like human health, public safety, and treaty obligations and responsibilities, we've had to reduce and even terminate some programs that are popular with both members of Congress and the American people."