Archive for February, 2011

The Budget and the Great Lakes

February 16, 2011

Before we get into the budget (and I have to warn you, this post is not for the mathematically faint of heart), I wanted to highlight several non-budget Great Lakes developments that NWF staff just published posts about:

Now for the budget.

On the surface the numbers are pretty straightforward: for this year (FY 11), the House Committee on Appropriations has proposed $225 million for Great Lakes restoration funding, as compared to $300 million in the President’s budget. And for next year (FY 12), the President has proposed $350 million for Great Lakes restoration funding and the House has yet to come out with its budget. But what does that mean?

Let’s look at it through a few different lenses:

Financial: As the Healing Our Waters Coalition points out in this week’s news release, the baseline for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding is $475 million a year – the amount the Great Lakes received in FY 10 and the amount that the President pledged in annual funding as he launched the GLRI that year. Neither the President nor the House committee has hit that target, and the House is much farther away than the President.

But the math gets worse when you look at the other programs that matter for Great Lakes restoration, particularly funding for upgrading the region’s crumbling sewer and water infrastructure.  There, the House committee is proposing to reduce FY 11 funding (from FY 10 levels) for upgrading sewer systems by 67 percent – a reduction of roughly $494 million to the Great Lakes states. The President’s budget for FY 12 is a bit better, but still a significant drop: a 26% reduction from current levels, or approximately a $192 million cut for the Great Lakes states.

Political: The news here is a bit better. The Great Lakes Regional Initiative clearly has some powerful champions on both sides of the aisle and in the White House.  The House Appropriations Committee (controlled by the Republican caucus) could have slashed Great Lakes funding even more, but thanks to the popularity of Great Lakes restoration with both Republicans and Democrats and requests for continued funding by powerful members of both parties in the Great Lakes delegation, the committee held the line at $225 million for FY 11. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the Great Lakes states have enormous electoral importance in the upcoming 2012 elections, Likewise, in this atmosphere of draconian budget cuts, the President could have cut Great Lakes funding in his FY 12 budget below $300 million, but he chose to come in at $350 million. While low, that’s still a substantial commitment to the Great Lakes.

What this means is that support for Great Lakes restoration remains strong for both parties – and we may have a chance to increase the FY 11 and FY 12 numbers in the Senate (and even the House) before this is all over. We’ll need those increases not just for GLRI funding, but also for modernizing old sewer systems.

Economic: Undoubtedly, the budget cuts are going to cost the Great Lakes region jobs – tens of thousands of jobs. A Brookings Institution study (pdf) documented that for every dollar spent on Great Lakes restoration, the region receives between two and four dollars of economic value. So reducing Great Lakes restoration funding by $250 million results in a loss of economic value of between $500 million and $1 billion for the region. In terms of jobs, just considering the cuts the House proposes in funding for sewer repairs means loss of roughly 22,000 jobs for Great Lakes states (pdf).

Ecological: For the Great Lakes themselves, these budgets present some real challenges. There’s an enormous backlog of work to restore the Great Lakes – to clean up toxic hotspots, restore wetlands, stop invasive species, and repair crumbling sewers and drinking water systems. In FY 10 alone, approximately 1100 projects (out of 1,400) went unfunded. And in FY 11, NO projects have been funded because the budget is stalled, and under any scenario, far fewer projects will be funded this year…. Meaning that Great Lakes cleanup will be delayed, take longer, and ultimately cost more.

Unfortunately, there’s more bad news in the budget that has nothing to do with funding. The House proposal contains a number of riders to constrain EPA’s ability to do its job. One of them would stop EPA from being able to protect the nation’s wetlands. That will be particularly harmful for the Great Lakes. Wetlands not only serve as critical habitat for fish and wildlife; they also are incredibly effective filters for pollution – the kidneys of the Great Lakes.

Our region has lost over 50 percent of its wetlands already and under the GLRI will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to restore them. But we’re losing ground if existing wetlands are being destroyed faster than we can construct new ones. And that’s what will happen under the rider presently in the House budget proposal.

Bottom line: The hill we have to climb to bring back the health of the Great Lakes just got longer and steeper.