May 22, 2014 at 8:53 pm

Legislation reclassifying Great Lakes as unified likely to ease dredging backlog

Washington — Congress passed bipartisan water legislation this week that will change how the Great Lakes are classified, which backers say will help shorten the dredging backlog in Michigan harbors.

The first-time designation of the Great Lakes as a unified system is “an important recognition of the Lakes and their contribution to the national economy, and it takes the steps necessary to ensure they are maintained now and for generations to come,” said U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township.

The designation was part of the broader the Water Resources Reform and Development Act that the Senate approved Thursday in a 91-7 vote. The House vote Tuesday was 412-4. All Michigan members of Congress voted in favor to the legislation except U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township.

Miller sponsored the Great Lakes language that drew the bipartisan support. She helped reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions as a member of the conference committee.

Amash spokesman Will Adams said the congressman voted in favor of the original House legislation last year but opposed the conference committee legislation Tuesday “because it increased spending by more than $2 billion and it established new loans and loan guarantees that impose unwise risks on taxpayers.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the legislation would cost $5.4 billion over the 2015-19 period. The previous House-passed version would have cost $3.5 billion in the first five years, compared with the Senate-passed version of $5.7 billion, according to CBO estimates.

Under the compromise, 10 percent of Harbor Maintenance Trust Funds in excess of 2012 levels would be set aside for Great Lakes harbor projects. The amount is down from 20 percent that the Senate requested with the backing of U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Carl Levin, D-Detroit. The House version didn’t have a specific percentage, just a new classification for the Great Lakes.

The legislation also calls for greater coordination and authorization of emergency measures to stop the spread of invasive species.

The bill allows the Great Lakes to better compete for resources now that they are recognized as one water system, supporters say.

The new classification “means harbors here in Michigan and throughout the region will be able to handle more cargo, which will lead to increased economic activity and most importantly, more jobs,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, who wrote a portion of legislation with Miller.

The legislation now heads to President Barack Obama for his signature.

mschultz@detroitnews.com