The Great Lakes are literally the future of the upper Midwest. This is a region built on natural resources, on its fertile land and rich lodes of iron and coal. As the economic benefits of those resources dwindle, our future now relies on how we use our one remaining untapped resource. The Lakes are the greatest reservoir of fresh water on the planet, and reviving the Midwestern economy depends on whether we use them wisely and well.
Which is why a vote by an obscure subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representative threatened to pound a nail into the Midwestern coffin. Presumably driven by the budget-cutting madness in Washington, the House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Subcommittee voted to cut funds for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative by nearly 80 percent. It seems at least some will be restored, but we’ve been reminded that our economic future depends on the whims of Congressmen who wouldn’t know a Great Lakes if they fell in it.
It’s becoming obvious that the Midwest needs to use and exploit the water in the Great Lakes, by encouraging companies producing water-related technologies, such as valves and meters, and by drawing in companies that need a steady source of fresh water, such as pharmaceuticals and food processors. But if we are going to use and exploit that water, first we have to make sure that it’s protected. In a drying-out world, it’s our greatest asset, and we can spend it only if we conserve it.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative exists to make this conservation happens. Started in 2009, it has spent more than $1.3 billion over the past four years to restore the ecology of the Great Lakes, by cleaning up polluted areas, preventing further pollution, combating invasive species, protecting offshore areas from polluted run-off, and restoring wetlands.
As the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel said, this is vital.
“This money isn’t going to build water parks,” the paper’s editorial said. “It’s being spent on cleaning up toxic hot spots, on cleaning up beaches, on restoring waterways needed for flood control and for abating polluted runoff. These aren’t ‘nice’ projects. These are necessary projects for the health and well-being of the lakes and the people and businesses that rely on them.”
And they’re working. Toxic sites are being cleaned up from Illinois to Ohio. Chicago is scrubbing its river. Milwaukee has turned its lower Kinnickinnic River from “a drainage ditch into a natural stream,” as the Journal-Sentinel put it. In northeast Ohio, the money paid to clean up 630,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment in the Ashtabula River.
There’s more to be done, but it will cost money. The House subcommittee tried to rob the bank.
The subcommittee is part of the House Appropriations Committee. The bill under consideration dealt with funds for the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Forest Service. When the bill emerged from the subcommittee, funding for the EPA for fiscal 2014 had been cut by $2.8 billion, or 34 percent. Within that, funding for the Great Lakes Initiative had been cut proportionately by more than twice as much, from $285 million to $60 million.
The subcommittee said it wanted to “rein in” the EPA. It said the agency was “overspending on ineffective and unnecessary programs.” The chairman of the Appropriations Committee, a Kentucky Republican named Hal Rogers, said money should go instead for programs “that directly affect the safety and well-being of Americans, while dramatically scaling back lower-priority or ‘nice-to-have’ programs.”
It was this sneer that prompted the Journal-Sentinel to object that “these aren’t nice programs,” but vital ones that affect the quality of life of Americans – in this case the millions of people living within the Great Lakes watershed.
One Great Lakes activist suggested that the subcommittee “miscounted and thought there was only one Great Lake.” He may be right. Of the 11 members (seven Republicans and four Democrats), only three come from Great Lakes states and one of those, Jose Serrano, a New York Democrat, is from the Bronx.
The only member whose district touches the Lakes is David Joyce, an Ohio Republican, and he’s moved fast to try to restore at least some of the funding. Working with a Wisconsin Republican, Tom Petri, he sponsored an amendment that restored the funding to $210 million – not as much as before, but a lot more than the $60 million voted by the subcommittee. Spending on the Great Lakes Initiative was $299.5 million in fiscal 2011, $299.4 million in 2012, and $284.13 million in 2013 after the sequestration took effect.
Joyce also has introduced a Great Lakes Ecological and Economic Protection Act (GLEEPA), which would authorize Congress to appropriate funding up to $475 million per year.
In other words, funding for the Midwest’s greatest asset next year is going to be $60 million to $475 million or something in between. There’s too much at stake here to leave this kind of money to chance, which is what the Great Lakes states do now.
Almost every regional interest affected by federal spending has its own caucus in Congress, a group of senators and representatives who band together to look out for their regions and their constituencies. But there’s no Great Lakes caucus. Actually, that’s not quite right: there is a Great Lakes Caucus, but it works on behalf of the Great Lakes of Africa, such as Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika. There’s no caucus for Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and the other Great Lakes of America.
Instead, there are Great Lakes Task Forces for the House and Senate, but they are run from within the Northwest-Midwest Institute, not from Capitol Hill itself, and they deal mostly in providing information, not in twisting Congressional arms. It’s hard to figure out what they accomplished: clearly, they forgot to pay attention to that House subcommittee vote.
Right now, it’s hard to get members of Congress to agree on anything, especially if they come from opposite parties. But much of the Great Lakes littoral is dominated by Democrats, which should provide the basis for cooperation. And as Joyce and Petri have shown, Great Lakes Republicans see a need for funding to protect the Lakes and are willing to battle their party’s budget-cutters to get it.It seems to me that there’s the basis here for a very effective caucus.