For the past year the federal government, states and Indian tribes in the region have been working to create a unified vision for cleaning up the Great Lakes and restoring them to good health. The first draft of a plan to prioritize the work was released this summer. But now state leaders and environmental groups fear the federal government may be backing down from its promise to help. ideastream's Karen Schaefer has the story.
Invasive species. Sewer overflows. Over-development of the shoreline. Those are just some of the problems facing the Great Lakes identified last July in the draft of a plan for fixing them prepared at the direct request of President Bush. And the president promised to commit the federal government to speed the restoration effort, work drafters estimate will cost about $20 billion spread over a period of years. But now Ohio Senator Mike DeWine, who's been working with leaders from 8 other states on the restoration plan, says he's troubled by a new report from an interagency task force overseeing the work.
Mike DeWine: I thought everyone frankly was on the same page until we got this report. We worked very closely and really thought everyone kind of had the same vision of where we needed to go.
DeWine and others are upset that the federal task force, headed by the U.S. EPA, has recommended no additional funding for Great Lakes clean-up. Instead, the report urges restoration planners to work more effectively and efficiently within the limits of existing funding - about $5 billion over the next ten years.
Mike DeWine: I think it's going to be very difficult for us to move forward with good cooperation when people are talking about not spending any additional money.
And that's even if the task force's $5 billion number adds up. Dewine suspects it doesn't.
Mike DeWine: It's not clear that that's the accurate figure, it's not clear that all that money is going towards the clean-up.
Andy Buchsbaum: It's like telling the people that they just need to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic when they see the iceberg approaching.
Andy Buchsbaum is outraged at the report. He heads the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes program office in Ann Arbor, and has been a key advisor in the year-long planning process. But Buchsbaum says even though big-ticket budget items like the war in Iraq and the aftermath of hurricane Katrina have recently slowed other types of federal spending, he hasn't given up on getting new federal dollars.
Andy Buchsbaum: I don't think this is the final word you're going to hear from President Bush or the White House. This, remember, is a report to the White House from the feds. These federal agencies are only one of many players in determining what happens to the Great Lakes and whether they get funding.
Instead Buchsbaum faults the federal agencies for breaking faith with the President's order.
Andy Buchsbaum: I think to some extent this does come back to EPA's doorstep. EPA is the convening federal agency and we can't allow the federal government to escape accountability because there are many agencies instead of one.
Ben Grumbles: I think it's important to clarify what the report to the President actually says.
Ben Grumbles heads the U.S EPA's involvement in the Great Lakes Task Force. He's assistant administrator for the agency's national water division. Grumbles refutes the criticism that's been leveled at the EPA.
Ben Grumbles: He ordered the interagency task force to work together on this unprecedented regional collaboration, but also to report to him on the efficiency and effectiveness of federal programs. The report is saying we need to focus on existing budgetary levels and make them more efficient and effective, but it's not ruling out by any stretch the possibility of new funding or initiatives.
But Great Lakes lawmakers like Senator DeWine say that's not good enough.
Mike DeWine: This is just not going to work. We've got invasive species problems, we've got water quality problems, we've got wetlands restoration that needs to be done, we've got contaminated sediments that need to be cleaned up. You can have all the great plans in the world, but if you don't have the money you can't get it done.
While DeWine and other Great Lakes lawmakers have not yet committed to a funding battle in Congress, Governors of several states, including Ohio Governor Bob Taft, have sent letters to the President, expressing their concern that the federal government is backing down from its promise of support. And restoration planners say they won't give up without a fight. But they'll have to negotiate with federal officials to finalize the plan. And they'll be looking for a favorable sign from the White House when the plan lands on the President's desk next month. Karen Schaefer, 90.3.