Sea of Studies Doesn't Help Restoration of Great Lakes

Lake Huron and the rest of the Great Lakes face many threats that officials are asking the federal government to help address.
Lake Huron and the rest of the Great Lakes face many threats that officials are asking the federal government to help address. (By John L. Russell -- Associated Press)
By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 30, 2005

CHICAGO, Oct. 29 -- From the algae blooms in Lake Erie to the invading zebra mussels in Lake Michigan, threats to the Great Lakes ecology stretch from A to Z. That would include B for bacteria, M for mercury and T for toxic spills.

Chicago beaches close routinely because of E. coli contamination. Advisories are in place about eating fish contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Environmental advocates warn about sewage overflows, water diversion and the increasing demands of a thirsty population.

After many years of haphazard government stewardship, a broad study effort convened by the administration discovered much agreement on the vast water system's troubles. The problem is the cost. A draft report released in July suggested spending $20 billion in the coming years -- several times more than current expenditures, and more than influential members of the Bush administration consider affordable.

Although formal conclusions are not due until December, skeptical Republicans and Democrats are already questioning the commitment of the White House and its congressional allies -- not least because of the huge demands of the Iraq war and the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.

"We want to see action," said Rep. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.), who reported that 140,000 women in Illinois alone showed elevated levels of mercury. To end the administration study effort with merely a series of poorly funded recommendations, he said, would "make it a waste of time."

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who joined Kirk in developing a $4 billion Great Lakes cleanup bill now stalled in Congress, said the administration has spent $4.5 billion on water projects in Iraq.

"This is not a mystery anymore. We know what needs to be done," Emanuel said. "The Great Lakes has gotten nine studies in four years from this administration, and Iraq has gotten $4.5 billion. Give Iraq the studies, and we'll take the money."

The worries of Kirk and Emanuel are reinforced by a memorandum recently assembled by the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, a committee of federal officials who will report to President Bush. The group praised existing efforts and said it has "serious concerns" with the July 2005 proposals and called for a strategy that "focuses on what can be accomplished within current budget projections."

In an earlier draft of the memorandum, a pledge to "redouble" U.S. efforts was replaced with "refocus" and "prioritize." Removed entirely is the sentence, "If any of the strategic plan's goals cannot be accomplished within current resources, the federal government should work with its partners to ensure the appropriate sharing of responsibilities."

"This memo shows that the administration is turning its back on the Great Lakes," charged Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. "A position that we need no new resources and can somehow simply shuffle things around and restore the Great Lakes is wrongheaded."

Indeed, administration officials have already cautioned advocates not to expect too much. The message is that the December report, a consensus view of 1,500 people from all levels of government, advocacy groups and business interests, will be considered a series of recommendations, not definitive policy. Money will be limited.

"We really have to come up with what's realistic and pragmatic. The overall budget picture is something that's part of this," said Gary Gulezian, who directs the Great Lakes efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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