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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.



Crunch Time for Presidential Candidates in the Great Lakes

October 17, 2012

Unified. Bipartisan. Consensus. Common priority.

You rarely hear those words around a presidential election season, especially when they involve something urgent, sometimes controversial, and potentially costly. And you certainly wouldn’t expect them this October, right in the midst of polarizing hundred-million dollar negative ad campaigns.

But that theme of pulling together regardless of party is exactly the message being broadcast right now throughout the Great Lakes, and especially in the presidential swing states. And we’re hearing it from very credible and powerful sources: editorial boards for major media outlets.

Editorials Demanding Candidates Commit to Great Lakes

Editorial after editorial are calling for the candidates to put aside their differences and pledge to restore the Great Lakes and protect them from threats like Asian carp. Editorial boards in cities across the region are demanding that both presidential candidates commit to maintaining funding for Great Lakes restoration and taking measures to stop Asian carp.

Take a look at the editorials:

The Obama and Romney campaigns are taking notice.

Obama, of course, sent top campaign surrogate Carol Browner to the Healing Our Waters’ 8th Annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Cleveland last month. Then last week, both campaigns sent their positions on the Great Lakes to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, with Romney saying he was “outraged” at the lack of progress on Asian carp, prompting a similarly outraged response from  Obama Chief of Staff Jacob Lew .

The editorials are coming in so fast that it’s hard to keep up. Just yesterday morning the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran yet another editorial recognizing that both Obama and Romney are now paying attention and calling on them to build a barrier in the Chicago canals to stop the advance of the Asian carp.

Candidates Trying to One-Up Each Other on the Great Lakes

So it’s a mere three weeks before the 2012 presidential election, and the candidates are trying to one-up each other on the Great Lakes .

The problem is, they’re still not yet making the commitments the lakes need. Yes, the Obama Administration has a very strong record on Great Lakes restoration funding and has made a commitment to continue it. Romney’s campaign made a restoration funding commitment, albeit a little vague.

Neither has committed to building the barrier in the Chicago canals needed to stop the advance of Asian carp toward Lake Michigan.

Well, voters want to hear a commitment on Asian carp and time is growing short.  President Obama and Governor Romney, now that we have your attention, we direct you to the wise counsel of former Ohio Governor Bob Taft, who wrote this week in a guest editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer,

The Great Lakes are an “every-American issue.” They are not a partisan issue any more than Glacier National Park was a partisan issue. The Great Lakes are not a regional issue any more than the BP oil spill was a regional issue….

So, we’ll offer candidates an easy way into the hearts of Great Lakes voters for President Obama and Governor Romney. Take the Great Lakes Protection and Restoration Candidate Pledge affirming the precious nature of this great asset and committing to do whatever is necessary to protect and restore it, including an effective defense against the Asian carp.

It’s crunch time. Will you take the pledge President Obama and Governor Romney?

Great Lakes Leadership

June 19, 2012

If there was ever a day when the Great Lakes need presidential – and presidential candidate –leadership, today is it.

First there’s this week’s release of the latest Asian carp eDNA tests by the Army Corps of Engineers from a single sampling day: 17 positive hits for silver carp past the electronic fence, including 14 in Lake Calumet, a direct shot to Lake Michigan, only five miles away. That’s bad – really bad. Never before has a single sampling event yielded that many positive hits in the Chicago waterways system. In fact, there were only 34 positive hits for Asian carp in all of 2011, and we just got half of that in one sampling day (May 22). Although the Corps cautions that eDNA readings don’t necessarily mean the presence of live fish, that’s pretty hard to argue with so much evidence in such a short time period. It’s pretty clear that the Asian carp are advancing past the electronic fence toward Lake Michigan. The question is how long it takes them to establish a breeding population….and whether our political leaders will act before it’s too late.

Then there’s funding for Great Lakes restoration. Today, the subcommittee considering the EPA’s budget in the  U.S. House of Representatives cut Great Lakes restoration funding by $50 million for next year. That reduces it to $250 million, almost a 50 percent decrease from the $475 million baseline passed in 2010. This, despite the fact that restoring the Great Lakes has proven to be an excellent investment ecologically AND economically; that over 600 projects are underway in eight states that put people back to work; and that the need for restoration work is greater than ever.  Talk to Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, and you’ll hear how algal blooms are decimating Lake Erie and the region’s businesses (including his own). He’ll tell you how important Great Lakes restoration funding is to anybody who fishes, works, or drinks water.

So, what to do, and who should do it? I have an easy answer: President Obama and Governor Romney can fix both of these, right now.  Both of them should publicly commit to maintaining Great Lakes restoration funding – no cuts – and tell their allies in the House and Senate to get in line. Both of them should announce their commitment to building a permanent barrier in the Chicago canals as soon as possible to stop the invasive carp from advancing any further toward Lake Michigan – and to doing whatever it takes to get that barrier in place ASAP. Both of them should tell their respective party leaders to provide the funding and authority needed to stop the carp. And both of them should sign the Great Lakes pledge issued by the Healing Our Waters Coalition, which asks for precisely these commitments.

Sometimes leaders have to make tough and unpopular decisions to do the right thing. This isn’t one of those times. The right thing is to protect 90 percent of the nation’s surface fresh water, the drinking water of 30 million Americans, and the engine for a multi-million dollar economy. The easy thing is to preserve the water wonderland of the people in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota – which just happen to be 2012 presidential swing states.

The Great Lakes need leadership – and this one’s easy. Will the presidential candidates step up?

Those who don’t learn from history…

May 24, 2012

The NWF Great Lakes Regional Center’s new reports on oil and gas drilling, and on sulfide mining could not have been timelier.

Just as we are issuing reports on government efforts to address oil and gas drilling and sulfide mining both industries are announcing major new initiatives in each area– an expansion of the Enbridge oil pipeline, and the approval of a permit for a huge new sulfide mine near Lake Superior.

Individually, the news is not good. Together, the actions begin to form a disturbing pattern of trading short term economic growth for ecological damage and eventual economic decline –that, if uncorrected, threaten the future of the Great Lakes and all of us who depend on them.

Pipeline Report Shows Lax Protections from Oil and Gas Spills

The pipeline report looks at federal and state programs that are supposed to protect people and wildlife from oil and gas spills and leaks. This region is a long way from recovering from the one-million-gallon Enbridge spill in Marshall, Michigan, so you’d suspect that there are some major gaps in protections. You’d be right.

The report documents that the federal government’s protections are weak and the states’ are incomplete, fragmented and ineffective:

  • There is no federal review of the long-term risks associated with routing of new oil pipelines or consideration of impacts to entire watersheds such as the Great Lakes basin, and state review is at best inadequate, and in some cases non-existent;
  • Many areas designated as “environmentally sensitive” are left unprotected by the federal Integrity Management program, the primary tool for assessing the condition of existing lines, installing leak detection systems, and repairing defects on a set timeline; and
  • Within the Great Lakes region, only one state (Minnesota) is certified to regulate intrastate oil pipelines, and only three states (Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois) have any permit requirements for new oil pipeline construction – and in many cases even those requirements are minimal.

We don’t have much time to fix the ineffective state and federal regulations. Enbridge is proposing to expand two of their pipelines to carry more oil in a more corrosive form though pipes that are 50-60 years old. The federal agencies need to do their jobs when reviewing the Enbridge plan, and even more importantly, the states need to step up. Michigan needs to closely scrutinize the Enbridge expansion plan and, if necessary, order the company to change it to make it safer. And the feds need to take a new and much harder look at the entire project.

Great Lakes Region in Midst of Mineral Rush

Our sulfide mining report also paints a grim picture of short-term jobs and revenues being traded for long-term ecological harm like acid mine drainage that destroys not just lakes and streams but also the jobs that depend on them. The Great Lakes region is experiencing a mineral mining rush. Billions of dollars of gold, nickel, copper and other metals have been discovered in sulfide ore bodies in the upper Great Lakes states and mining companies are pursuing them at full speed.

The tradeoff posed by this mining rush is not simply jobs vs. the environment; it is jobs vs. jobs – mining jobs vs. tourism and recreation jobs, and mining jobs vs. the jobs in the knowledge economy that come to a region when its quality of life is high.

Federal protections against this type of sulfide mining are minimal and the state response is mixed. Some, like Wisconsin, are doing a decent job; others, like Michigan, are not. The report found, for example, that Michigan has a potentially effective law, but that its methods of implementing and enforcing it are weak.

And that’s bad news for Lake Superior. Michigan has already approved the massive Kennecott mine, which will be dug underneath the Salmon Trout River, a blue-ribbon trout stream that runs through pristine forest to Lake Superior, only a few miles away. Michigan’s approval came despite overwhelming evidence that acid mine drainage is likely to occur and that the mine itself could collapse, endangering workers and sucking in the entire Salmon Trout River.

Last week, Michigan issued an initial permit for a second operation, the Orvana Copperwood Mine, to be located in the far western tip of the Upper Peninsula only two miles from Lake Superior. Mining at Orvana would be permitted within 200 feet of the Lake Superior shoreline. 200 feet! That puts the risk of acid mine drainage  less than a football field away from the largest, cleanest lake in North America.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

When we talk about the Great Lakes, we often think about “restoration” – helping the lakes recover from decades of historic contamination and other threats. We think of restoring the status quo. But that’s not right; for the Great Lakes the status quo isn’t static. It’s moving all the time, and in these areas, the status of the lakes is degrading.

We cannot restore the lakes with one hand while we’re making them worse with the other. It’s much easier to make them sick than it is to make them healthy. The adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” strongly applies to the Great Lakes. It is far more costly to restore the damage than to prevent it in the first place.

The agencies charged with regulating pipelines and mines need to consider why we need a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. In the past we allowed the kinds of pollution that they’re allowing now. That pollution damaged the lakes to the point where we need a $20 billion investment to bring them back to health. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.

The Great Lakes are the foundation of our economy, our recreation, our quality of life, our health. Let’s treat them that way.

Wooing Great Lakes Voters

May 16, 2012

This week the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent a shot across the bow of the presidential candidates. In an editorial, it chastised the Obama Administration for doing too little, too late to stop Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes. It criticized the Army Corps of Engineers for moving too slowly in finding a permanent solution, and took the Administration to task for failing to support hydrological separation between the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes.

It concluded with, “If Obama really wants to woo voters in the Great Lakes states, he should tell the Army Corps to take the coalition report, crunch the numbers quickly, and start shoveling dirt.”

If this sounds familiar, it should: this is the same logic that prompted the Healing Our Waters Coalition and NWF to issue the Great Lakes Protection and Restoration Presidential Candidates Pledge. Healing Our Waters, the 120-organization coalition dedicated to restoring and protecting the Great Lakes, asked all the candidates for president to pledge to:

  1. Maintain and if possible increase funding for Great Lakes restoration, and
  2. Commit to constructing a barrier in the Chicago canals that would hydrologically separate the Mississippi River and Great Lakes watersheds.

President Obama has committed to the funding, but as the Plain Dealer points out so clearly, he’s resisted committing to the long-term measures needed to stop the invasion of Asian carp.

What the Plain Dealer hasn’t said is that thus far, Governor Romney has committed to neither.

I hope both candidates read the Plain Dealer editorial. The largest newspaper in the most critical swing state in the nation is telling them what moves their voters, and guess what? It’s the Great Lakes.

Mr. President and Mr. Governor, how about that pledge?

Asian Carp Update: Part II – Short Term Actions

June 17, 2011

Last post, I promised to do a multi-part update on Asian carp, moving from recent sampling to short term actions to long term actions to threats outside the Chicago Area Waterway System.

To sum up the recent sampling results, it’s pretty clear that there are isolated Asian carp in the Chicago waterway system past the electric fence, but the fish do not appear to be present in breeding populations. Which is good news; it means we have time to get a permanent fix for this crisis.

Today’s post takes on short term actions – particularly, last month’s report from the government’s Asian carp task force.

Let’s be clear at the outset: we need to keep our eye on the ball, which is permanent separation of the Mississippi River system from Lake Michigan. And I’ll discuss that in the next post. But the recent government report, with the oh-so-interesting title of “Monitoring and Rapid Response Plan for Asian Carp on the Upper Illinois River and Chicago Area Waterway System,” (pdf) is not designed to address permanent separation; it addresses primarily the short-term actions that the agencies have been employing for several years.

Those short-term actions include:

  • upgrading the electric fence that deters carp from moving up the canals toward the lake
  • preventing carp-infested waters from flooding from the Des Plaines River into the canals
  • reducing the population pressures of Asian carp from below the electric fence (so there are fewer fish available to travel upstream toward the lake)
  • netting and commercial fishing operations
  • poisoning stretches of the canals when the monster carp appear to be present
  • testing out new methods of killing or repelling the carp
  • continuing to conduct eDNA testing for Asian carp in Chicago’s canals

Although the report doesn’t feature any groundbreaking developments, it actually does show progress for short-term activities. It’s pretty much in line with what we asked them to do in the short term when I testified before the Senate a year ago–you can read my full testimony on Asian carp here (pdf).

Discussions of hydroguns and other fanciful technologies aside, the main thrust of the monitoring and rapid response report is that:

  1. They have developed a trigger-response mechanism for making management decisions, just as we demanded that they do.
  2. The triggers include eDNA evidence, sometimes in isolation.
  3. While they don’t explicitly defend the validity of eDNA evidence as I’d like to see, they do defend it implicitly, as they are willing to take management actions based on DNA evidence alone.
  4. The availability and transparency of the eDNA evidence has improved dramatically.
  5. Their plan moving forward for sampling and rapid response looks pretty solid.

The fundamental problem with the report is the way it was marketed and covered. It is not designed to address long-term solutions; even the name of the report indicates how limited it is. The report is supposed to complement the long-term actions that the long-term plan, the Great Lakes Mississippi River Separation Study, is designed to develop, not substitute for them.

The coverage was confusing and misleading, probably not helped by news release put out by the agencies online, which implies that this report describes all the efforts of the agencies on CAWS; it never mentions long term separation.

Most importantly, the report reflects a change in attitude and action by the agencies. It shows they have are relying on the best evidence – including eDNA evidence – to make rational decisions on how to slow the continued march of Asian carp past existing barriers. If this action plan was accompanied by a timely and robust schedule for completing a permanent and effective barrier, I’d say it does the job it needs to do.

Unfortunately, the plans for the permanent barrier is woefully lacking…. And so the agencies seem to be relying on this short-term plan as a long-term solution. And that’s a recipe for disaster.

Stay tuned for next week’s post on what’s happening (or not) with the permanent barrier.

Kalamazoo River Oil Disaster Response

July 30, 2010

Earlier this week, an oil pipeline beneath Marshall, Michigan (about 70 miles west of Ann Arbor), burst and released between 800,000 and 1,000,000 gallons of oil into Talmadge Creek, a small tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The oil quickly flowed into the river and has travelled 35 miles downstream, where it is about 60 miles from Lake Michigan. The pipeline has been shut off so no more oil should be released into the river, but the pipeline is underground and the EPA has not confirmed whether the oil has indeed stopped entering the stream.

Visit for more on the disaster.

Oil in the Kalamazoo River

Oil in the Kalamazoo River | National Wildlife Federation

Federal and state officials are working with the pipeline owner, Enbridge, to try to contain the spill, recover the oil, and protect and rehabilitate damaged wildlife. U.S. EPA is the incident commander for the spill. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, the Coast Guard, and the Michigan DNRE also are part of the response team.
As of noon today (Thursday), federal and state officials believe that they have largely contained the spill in Morrow Lake, an impoundment of the Morrow Dam just east of Kalamazoo. They say that they have removed approximately 2,500 barrels of oil from the river, or about 10 percent of the spill. 

NWF staff on site this morning verified that the spill did not appear to have gotten to the dam. Officials are also making contingency plans for actions at Lake Allegan, another 30 miles downstream from Morrow Pond (near Allegan), if the spill is not contained earlier. Despite comments by Governor Granholm this morning indicating otherwise, officials appear to be confident that the spill will not reach Lake Michigan or the wetlands complexes near Saugatuck. However, the damage to the areas along the Kalamazoo River is severe. Toxic fumes have made evacuations necessary and residents along the river have been warned to boil their water before using it. Oiled birds and dead fish have been discovered, but there is little information about the extent of the wildlife damage; the pipeline company, Enbridge, appears to be concealing that.

Although this spill is very small compared to the Gulf spill, it has been called the largest oil spill in the Midwest. To provide a sense of perspective, the Kalamazoo River spill is about 10 percent of the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. Because it is in a medium-sized river, the spill is highly concentrated and will stay that way until it is removed or diffuses in Morrow Lake, Lake Allegan, and Lake Michigan itself.

National and regional media have been reporting on the spill, including the New York Times and the Detroit Free Press. NWF has issued a statement. Our office has a team of people on the ground in Marshall, Battle Creek and Kalamazoo tracking the spill and the wildlife recovery efforts.

As we learned from the Gulf disaster, this is all unfolding rapidly and we are still learning critical information. We have hopes that despite its size, this spill will be quickly contained and much of the oil slick removed. The impacts on the river and its wildlife are still unknown; I believe we’ll be dealing with those impacts for years.