Archive for February, 2013

Don’t dig a deeper hole for the Great Lakes

February 22, 2013

First do no harm. That’s a maxim for the medical profession – and we should follow it when it comes to responding to Great Lakes crises.

Make no mistake: this crisis is real and scary. In Lake Michigan, for example, the water level is a full 5 feet lower than it was during the record highs of 1987. Five feet! So today you could be standing on a beach with your feet dry, when 25 years ago the water would have been up to your neck.

The low water levels are really socking it to our region’s businesses – cargo ships have to leave freight behind to lighten their loads; marinas are high and dry; fishing boats can’t get through channels. News outlets are taking notice, documenting hardships in Michigan and Wisconsin. As water levels continue to fall, it’s become a national story covered by CNN and National Geographic.

What’s the cause? One of the best analyses is from WBEZ’s Lewis Wallace, who reports on a combination of factors: natural cycles, less precipitation, more evaporation, less ice cover, and the results of dredging in the St. Clair River.

It’s pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that climate change is playing a major role and that while lake levels may rebound, the long term trend is downward.  Precipitation rates, evaporation and ice cover all are climate-driven, and as the air warms, at least the last two (evaporation and ice cover) will only get worse.

So far, the response has been short term actions focused on shipping: more money for dredging harbors and channels. Michigan has freed up $11 million in state funds to pay for more dredging. And then there’s all the money in the national Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund — $6 billion accumulated that has NOT been spent on harbor maintenance because the government has used it to fill in other parts of the budget. There are proposals to use more of that money to dredge.

But it seems to me that “dredge, baby, dredge” isn’t going to solve this problem. Sure, we have to do some emergency dredging. But if lake levels really are trending down, what’s the long term answer? We can’t keep on digging out the lakes or the Great Lakes will begin to look like the Great Canyons. It’s worth remembering that dredging is what helped get us into this mess in the first place – the St. Clair River dredging lowered lake levels by at least an estimated 20 inches.

And what do we do with all of the dredged materials – dump them in the lakes like we do now? That’s making the Lake Erie dead zone larger and more severe.

So here’s an idea: can we flip the solution? Rather than trying to save our shipping only by deepening channels and harbors, can we find a way to raise water levels or at least to slow their decline? That would mean taking actions like regulating lake levels better, conserving more water, restoring wetlands, increasing groundwater infiltration, and reducing the sudden runoff produced by increasing severe storms. Those are not easy and they have their own dangers.

But this approach is worth a much closer look before we dig ourselves into a deeper hole.


The Great Lakes and the fiscal…..slope?

February 8, 2013

I don’t know about you, but after months of reading about fiscal cliffs, sequestration, grand bargains, and a variety of other metaphors for the budget situation in Washington,  I could never figure out what it meant for Great Lakes restoration funding — except that it probably wasn’t good.

 Two days ago, at the Great Lakes Environmental Summit organized in the Capitol by the Northeast-Midwest Institute, I finally began to understand more about how these things all tie together. And I’m going to try to explain it here without botching the whole thing, confusing matters further, or putting everybody to sleep.

 I’ll start at the end: knowing more about this process doesn’t change the forecast for Great Lakes restoration funding. Nobody knows for sure what will happen. But the unity of the region (one staffer said, “bicameral, bipartisan agreement”) increases the odds for the lakes.

 So here’s how I understand it. Normally, the Great Lakes budget is set by appropriations subcommittees in the House and then adjusted in the Senate, based on an allocation given by the full appropriations committee. The appropriations committee number is part of the overall national budget the committee adopts. That budget is modified by the full House and Senate, passed as a budget resolution, signed by the President, and the government is funded for a full year.

 Simple in theory.

 Real life is never that simple, and especially now. For one thing, the appropriations committees have to try to stay within the framework of the Budget Control Act, which Congress passed several years ago (and so can amend in any year’s budget). And the President weighs in with his budget recommendation.

 The result of those two factors by themselves has led to gridlock in the budget process that’s gotten so bad that Congress hasn’t been able to pass a budget resolution, and instead has passed continuing resolutions extending last year’s budget just to keep the government’s doors open.

 But even that is easy compared to what’ s happened in the last year, with sequestration and grand budget deals. Sequestration, a law passed by Congress last year, sets automatic spending cuts for the budget — which essentially sets different limits than the Budget Control Act, and those limits also must be met. And the House Budget Committee wants to make steeper (and different) cuts — which means that yet another budget plan might be passed in the House and adjusted in the Senate.

 The bottom line is that the subcommittees that set the Great Lakes restoration budget won’t even get a number to work with until after all those other deals are worked out.

 When will that happen? March 27 is when the latest continuing budget resolution runs out, and if a new budget isn’t passed by then (or a new continuing resolution enacted), then parts of the government shut down. So that’s a pretty firm date.

 I’ve been told not to get confused by the date sequestration kicks in, which is March 1. Apparently sequestration automatically cuts spending…. until Congress changes the law. So if Congress adopts a budget by March 27, it can undo or redo sequestration.

 That’s the limit of my new-found budget knowledge. I leave you with two takeaways:

  • March 27 is the big deadline unless Congress passes another extension. We’ll have some sort of budget resolution by then.
  • Our chance to weigh in with Congress is between now and March 27 – after that, it may be too late. Most members of Congress probably can’t do anything right now while high-level negotiations are underway, but they can still hear from us that Great Lakes restoration funding is huge priority that needs to be maintained. That way when they do have a chance to act, they’ll be ready.

 One final thought. I heard at the meeting that we’re really not facing a fiscal cliff – it’s more like we’re sliding down a slope than falling over an edge. That makes sense to me. Fiscal slope may not be as dramatic, but tumbling down it still hurts and we still wind up at the bottom unless something is done. Let’s stay at the top.