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February 29, 2012 / Mike Piskur

Federal Budget Cuts Threaten Coastal Communities

This article originally appeared in Progress Illinois on February 24, 2012.

The Obama Administration’s 2013 budget carries positives and negatives for the Great Lakes. The budget includes $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a multi-year effort devoted to cleaning up toxins, combating invasive species, and protecting shores and wetlands from pollution.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however, will suffer a 1.2 percent budget cut from the current year, and an approximately 16 percent reduction from 2011. Spending for drinking water and sewer infrastructure will take the brunt of the cuts, and the $9.9 million Beach Grants Program will be eliminated.

This program provides funds to coastal communities nationwide for monitoring of water quality and to inform the public about the presence of “disease-causing microorganisms” at beaches. Its elimination could lead to the increased incidence of illness for beach goers. Coastal communities in Illinois received $241,000 from this program for 2012.

Alliance for the Great Lakes President and CEO Joel Brammeier said although he expects GLRI funds to support beach monitoring in the short-term, it is not realistic to believe communities can continue public health and water quality without dedicated funding.

“If we stop monitoring, we stop knowing what the problems are. I don’t think this administration is going to stop monitoring beach safety. I realize there are going to be trade offs in the current budget situation, but we have to be protective of a program that creates tremendous assets for many coastal communities on the Great Lakes,” Brammeier said.

As a candidate in 2008, President Obama pledged $5 billion in funding for GLRI over ten years. The administration requested $475 million for the fund in 2010, but the lingering economic downturn and resulting budget battles have resulted in significant cuts. Despite these fiscal constraints, the administration has remained committed to tackling problems caused by pollution.

The Asian carp crisis compounded the difficulties stemming from budget contractions. The sudden onset of a major threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem prompted the federal government to spend GLRI funds to combat the invasive species. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, despite a five percent overall budget cut, has requested $25 million for its efforts to prevent Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes.

These funds will be used to bolster monitoring efforts and operate electric barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal designed to stop the fish. Brammeier says, “GLRI was never intended to pay for emergency surgery. A significant portion of it has gone to pay for Asian carp control and prevention. In 2013, the base budgets of core agencies are being built up to handle Asian carp, rather than use funding from GLRI, which is a good thing.”

Spending tens of millions of dollars each year on temporary solutions, however, is infeasible in a time of massive deficits and budget cuts. Given these mounting costs, Brammeier says a one-time investment for permanent separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi makes economic sense.

“The writing is on the wall that separation is a when not an if, but we are quickly transitioning to recognizing that the system is broken not just for invasive species but for water quality and transportation as well.”

GLRI funds may fill the short-term gap, but inadequate beach safety monitoring will create long-term problems for communities on the Great Lakes coast. Lake Michigan beaches are the major natural recreation for millions of Illinoisans and an important economic driver for many communities. Brammeier calls cuts to beach health programs “a risky strategy.”

“Beach closings are stopping coastal communities from maximizing their value,” he added. “It’s more important than ever that we give communities the tools they need to dig out from the legacy of damage from the 20th century so they can get their economies going again.”

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