WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama reined in funding for restoration of the Great Lakes in his budget released this week, spurring a backlash among environmentalists from Minnesota and a half dozen other states.
Obama's budget proposal for fiscal 2015 slashes $25 million from the current funding level for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has supported dozens of projects in Minnesota aimed at controlling and monitoring pollutants and preserving and restoring fish and wildlife habitats in Lake Superior.
The president's budget cuts another $430 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which helps communities repair wastewater infrastructure to prevent sewage runoff into the Great Lakes and the rivers and streams that lead into them.
"This is not the time to cut Great Lakes programs that are producing solid economic and environmental benefits for people and communities across the region," said Todd Ambs, campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which represents 120 environmental groups from across the region. "A lot of work remains to restore the Great Lakes to health. Cutting funding now will only cost us more later, because projects will get harder and more expensive the longer we wait."
The Obama administration said in the budget that it "maintains strong support" for the Restoration Initiative with proposed funding of $275 million in fiscal 2015. That's down from $300 million in 2014. The administration said the cuts to the clean water fund are part of "targeted reductions" to focus on communities most in need and noted that it still provides $1.8 billion for the fund.
Obama launched the restoration initiative in 2009 to make good on a campaign promise to support revitalization of the lakes. Since then, the program has invested more than $1 billion in cleaning up toxins, fighting habitat degradation, preventing runoff from cities and farms and battling invasive species.
But the president has been locked repeatedly in battles with Republicans who want to cut federal spending. That and the fact that Obama didn't even ask for as much funding as this year for the lake and water programs in his budget proposal does not bode well for the programs getting more than he asked for when Congress passes spending legislation. Republicans in Congress have already derided the budget as a political wish list they are unlikely to support.
Minnesota Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar both said Wednesday that they are prepared to fight for full funding of the programs. Franken said the lakes support thousands of jobs in the state and are an "incredible" tourist destination.
"For years now, I've been working on several fronts to protect and restore the Great Lakes, and I'm disappointed that the president's budget proposal includes cuts to these critical programs," he said. "I'll be fighting to make sure cuts like this don't go in to effect."
"These proposed cuts could harm important projects that are helping boost the economy and protect the Great Lakes," Klobuchar said. "That's why I will continue to work to ensure that Great Lakes conservation and restoration programs get the funding and support they need."
The budget release coincided with an annual conference of Great Lakes advocates in Washington, including Clean Water Action Minnesota's Darrell Gerber.
He and the others were already scheduled to spend much of Thursday visiting members of Congress and speaking with them about the lakes. Now, the Obama budget will surely be a major topic in those talks.
"We're really disappointed to see the cut in funding to GLRI and the thing is, is that that fund has actually -- probably almost better than almost any other state -- has been leveraged in Minnesota for a lot of really good on-the-ground work," Gerber said in an interview Wednesday.
He said he had meetings scheduled with all 10 members of Congress from Minnesota, including Franken and Klobuchar.