Critics say Bush budget shortchanges Great Lakes
(AP) - President Bush's 2008 spending plan would help defend the Great Lakes from the dreaded Asian carp but shortchanges a broader effort to restore the battered ecosystem, environmental groups say.
Funding in the proposed budget amounts to "treading water, when what's needed is a full-scale rescue," said Jeff Skelding, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.
Representing more than 80 organizations, the coalition supports a $20 billion restoration blueprint announced in 2005. It was developed at Bush's request by a task force with members from federal, state and local agencies, plus Indian tribes, activists and academics.
It envisioned an intensive, coordinated response to the Great Lakes' most pressing problems, such as toxic contamination, sewage overflows, habitat loss and invasive species.
"There are budget challenges everywhere, but the reality is that we can't afford not to do this," said Emily Green, director of the Sierra Club's Great Lakes program.
The president, she said, has proposed continuing an underfunded, piecemeal approach.
Benjamin Grumbles, the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for water issues, said federal spending for Great Lakes water quality improvements would total $500 million under the Bush plan.
"Of this, $57 million is for EPA programs to reduce toxics, protect wetlands and watersheds, and clean up contaminated sediments," Grumbles said. "The administration remains committed to restoring and protecting our Great Lakes."
In a telephone news conference, Healing Our Waters leaders praised Bush's request for $7.6 million to complete an electronic barrier to repel the Asian carp. The voracious carp escaped from Southern fish farms during flooding in the early 1990s and has been making its way up the Mississippi River.
Biologists say if the carp spread across the Great Lakes, it would out-compete native species for food, eventually crippling the $4.5 billion commercial and sport fishery while disrupting the ecosystem.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2002 activated a temporary electrical barrier on the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, the man-made waterway linking Lake Michigan with the Mississippi basin.
Pending legislation in Congress would upgrade that barrier into a permanent backup for a new, $16 million device now halfway completed. It would send pulsing electronic currents into the water, causing the carp to turn back.
Previously, Skelding said, authorization to finish the barriers has been attached to catchall water project bills that bogged down. Supporters will lobby the House and Senate to deal with it separately this year.
"We've got to shut the door on the carp coming into the Great Lakes," Skelding said.
The president requested $687 million for low-interest loans to help local governments in the Great Lakes region upgrade sewage treatment systems. That's about the same as a year ago and $200 million less than in fiscal 2006, said Chad Lord, legislative director for Healing Our Waters.
A study last fall found that 24 billion gallons of untreated effluent enter the lakes every year through sewage overflows.
The budget seeks $35 million for cleanup of toxic pollution in river mouths and harbors, down from nearly $50 million last year.
The Great Lakes Fishery Commission, which works to control the invasive sea lamprey, would get $12 million, down from nearly $15 million two years ago.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)