August 31, 2009 at 1:00 am

Today's Focus

$1 billion proposed in 2010 for Great Lakes restoration

Supporters hope Obama pledge will bring environmental, economic boost

The sun rises over the wetlands along the Maple River near Bridgeville, north of Lansing. Congress has been asked to approve additional funds for Great Lakes cleanup efforts. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

Washington -- Congress is poised to nearly double its funding commitment to the Great Lakes, adding up to $475 million for restoration that would deter invasive species, clean up polluted sites and create jobs in Michigan and the region.

Earth-mover Craig Hamlin is encouraged because a surge in federal funds could mean new business.

Since home building went bust in Michigan, Hamlin has kept his business going by digging up land to create wetlands instead of basements.

"Great Lakes work is pretty much all there is," said Hamlin, whose bulldozers, other heavy equipment and crews are transforming 70 acres of corn and bean farmland in Newport into a wetlands habitat for migratory birds along Lake Erie.

"These Great Lakes jobs affect a lot of people," added Hamlin of Hamlin Grading in Stockbridge. "Beyond my own workers, probably another 150 people end up getting work, by making pipes, or pumps and other materials we use."

The unprecedented amount of money being considered for the Great Lakes reflects President Barack Obama's pledge on the campaign trail of $5 billion for large-scale restoration.

Obama asked Congress for $475 million to get started. Already the federal government appropriates about $550 million a year to Great Lakes programs, which environmentalists expect will continue. If all goes as advocates hope, Congress would be committing about $1 billion to the Great Lakes in fiscal year 2010.

"This is a Great Lakes president," said Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Flint, noting Obama built his career in Illinois. "He really cares about the Lakes because he knows them."

The House passed Obama's requested amount in June. The Senate seeks less money -- $400 million -- in a bill that could pass as early as mid-September.

Whatever funding level a House-Senate conference committee agrees on is expected to pass since it's part of a larger appropriations bill to fund the Interior Department.

"I'm very hopeful we'll get the higher level of funding," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing.

But spokesman Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union says pumping federal dollars into cleanup efforts might create jobs in the short term but will hurt businesses in the long run.

The jobs are "paid for by deficit spending," he said. "That means when Michigan business wants to borrow money to expand, they'll have trouble because the federal government will be swamping the credit market."

But advocates say the high funding levels mean more than jobs. They will also mean cleaner water for boaters, swimmers and wildlife.

They hope Congress will sustain funding at the higher level. The House bill asks the Environmental Protection Agency to draw up a five-year cleanup plan at the higher funding levels.

Lynn Vaccaro, project coordinator of the Michigan Sea Grant, predicts state programs could get roughly one-third of the money. She pointed out that 58 percent of the Great Lakes' U.S. shorelines are in Michigan, as are 44 percent of the contaminated "areas of concern" in U.S. feeder rivers and harbors.

Only Michigan lies completely in the basin. The other Great Lakes states are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Drawing on an analysis by the Brookings Institution, Vaccaro predicts that if $475 million was appropriated annually over five years, about $2 billion to $4.3 billion in economic activity could be created in Michigan.

That reflects expected spending increases on everything from fishing rods and beer to kayaks and charter boats. Plus, the value of homes and other property around previously contaminated areas would rise.

The funding boost would help businesses and wildlife groups alike.

For example, Michigan Ducks Unlimited received a $146,000 federal grant to help pay for the $220,000 wetlands project Hamlin is working on. With private donations falling off due to the economy, federal grants are critical to such groups.

"This money will be a two-fold blessing, both financially and ecologically," said Paul Hess, a biologist for Ducks Unlimited.

Depending on how much is appropriated, including separate outlays for sewage-facility upgrades, the health of the Great Lakes will show "significant improvement" within five years, with cleaner beaches, healthier fish, fewer invasive species and less pollution slipping into the system through rivers and streams, says Andy Buchsbaum, the Great Lakes project director at the National Wildlife Federation.

He said the funding would allow "us to start bringing the Great Lakes back to health rapidly and effectively."

The president's request includes:

  • $146 million for cleaning up pollution in sediment in feeder rivers and harbors before it flows into the Lakes.

  • $105 million to protect and restore habitat and wildlife.

  • $97 million to stop "nonpoint" pollution, such as farm fertilizer and oil runoff, that closes beaches and leads to fish kills.

  • $65 million to evaluate how the Lakes and wildlife are responding to cleanup efforts.

  • $60 million for combating zebra mussels and other invasive species, which the EPA has estimated cause up to $5 billion in damage a year in the Great Lakes basin by destroying fisheries, clogging power plants' pipes and reducing property values.

    The Senate version targets money similarly, but in smaller amounts.

    Chad Lord, the policy director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, says whatever amount Congress agrees on can only be a start.

    "The problems are so huge that we'll need a sustained, multiyear commitment from both the administration and the Congress to fix 100 percent of the problems facing the Great Lakes," Lord said.

  • Sunrise over Lake Huron in the tip of the Thumb at Eagle Bay. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)