Environmentalists and members of Congress are concerned that budget cuts to EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) for fiscal year 2014 could hinder the program’s progress in cleaning contaminated sediment and restoring habitat, and reduce the scope of the program’s 2015-2019 Action Plan, which is currently being drafted.
The House and Senate have proposed bills for FY14 that allocate funding to the GLRI at levels far below the authorized amount of $475 million. The Senate has proposed $300 million for GLRI, and the House proposed $210 million — an amount less than what was set during the FY13 sequester of $284 million. Although the final FY14 appropriation for the GLRI has not yet been determined, advocates are worried that the new budget may thwart efforts to clean up and protect the nation’s biggest source of fresh water.
GLRI advocates are pushing for a baseline budget of $300 million for the program, fearing that anything less would hinder current progress, and most say the numbers are still far below what is needed. FY10, the first year GLRI was authorized, is the only time Congress has appropriated the full $475 million for the program. Funding in other years has ranged between $225 million and $300 million.
“Congress is cutting everything in sight and not paying a great deal of attention to whether or not the cuts have validity or whether they serve a useful purpose,” Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), a co-chairman of the Great Lakes Task Force, told Inside EPA. “We want the full $300 million every year and frankly we think we need more.”
The GLRI focuses on coordinating five subject areas in the Great Lakes — toxic substances, invasive species, pollution, wildlife protection and accountability measures — through the help of an 11-agency task force headed by EPA. In total there were 1,487 projects as of May 2013 with the majority focusing on habitat and wildlife protection. EPA is in charge of 498 of the programs.
Lawmakers from Great Lakes states in recent years have repeatedly urged House and Senate appropriators, as well as the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB), to fund the program at $300 million. The appeals, including an Oct. 22 letter to the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, emphasize the lakes’ regional and national importance, noting they “support 1.5 million jobs, generating $62 billion in wages each year” and that the Great Lakes fishery is valued at $7 billion a year.
“Further cuts to this program would endanger critical restoration projects, that in the end would cost more to correct. The longer restoration waits, the more expensive it will be to address the problems,” the lawmakers wrote in a Dec. 11, 2012, letter to OMB.
A source familiar with GLRI funding said the largest concern surrounding the program’s potentially decreased budget is being able to stay on schedule and finish the tasks in a complete manner. “I think the biggest thing that the GLRI has been able to do is speed up the restoration efforts that has gone on. Less money will mean fewer projects, and fewer projects mean a slower rate of restoration,” the source said.
EPA is currently mapping out its Action Plan for 2015-2019 and has yet to address what programs may be seeing funding cuts if the budget were to continue at $300 million annually or less. Stakeholder groups that receive competitive grant funding through the GLRI are wary that their programs may be the first casualties of a decreased budget and have yet to have their fears assuaged. Yet, at least one group that receives grant funding remains optimistic that the requested $300 million allocation for the GLRI will be received, largely because of the recent bipartisan efforts from members of Congress.
“Republicans say they believe [the Great Lakes] are a very good investment and of course there’s a strong support in the Senate as well,” says a GLRI stakeholder source, “We’re quite confident–and it’s because you can point to example after example of where that money has been invested well so far. It’s returning great dividends to the region, not only from an environmental standpoint but an economic standpoint too.”
Recently EPA announced it would add climate change as a goal of the GLRI plan after a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that climate concerns were lacking in the program. Region V Administrator Susan Hedman who is also the Great Lakes National Program Manager, told GAO in November that climate change and other factors are already “a major focus of discussion underway to develop” the next Action Plan. The agency has not addressed the source of funding for the new goal.