Obama established the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative the first year of his presidency, based on a priority list compiled by government officials, scientists and advocates who warned the inland seas' food webs and other ecological systems were in danger of unraveling from long-festering environmental ills. The lakes hold about one-fifth of the world's surface fresh water and meet the needs of more than 30 million people.
After putting $475 million for the program in his 2010 budget, Obama has sought roughly $300 million in each subsequent year — and Congress has gone along, reflecting strong bipartisan support among lawmakers in the eight-state region who often agree on little else.
But his spending blueprint for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 proposes just $275 million, which U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy said is indicative of a broad push for spending restraint. Her department, which oversees the Great Lakes program, would absorb an overall $310 million cut under the president's plan.
"The administration is very supportive of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative," McCarthy said in a phone conference, adding that the proposed cut "represents no lack of commitment ... and it represents a significant continued investment."
The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which represents 120 organizations in the eight-state region, said it was disappointed.
"A lot of work remains to restore the Great Lakes to health," said Todd Ambs, the coalition's director. "Cutting funding now will only cost us more later, because projects will get harder and more expensive the longer we wait."
The program targets invasive species, toxic hot spots such as polluted harbors and river mouths, agricultural and urban runoff blamed for widespread algae blooms and loss of wetlands and other wildlife habitat. It supports the effort to prevent Asian carp, which have invaded the Mississippi River and its tributaries, from reaching the lakes.
More than 2,000 grants have been awarded under the program to nonprofit groups, local, state and tribal governments and researchers.
The budget was released as advocates from the region made their annual visit to Washington, D.C., to lobby for programs that benefit the lakes. They will ask Congress to keep the restoration program at its current level, Ambs said. A spokeswoman for Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said he would push for $300 million.
The coalition also objected to a proposed cut in a federal fund that helps communities upgrade wastewater treatment systems — a top priority in the Great Lakes region, where antiquated sewers often overflow during heavy rainstorms. The Great Lakes states — Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin — will lose a combined $150 million if the cutback is approved, Ambs said.