GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Rallying Congress to spend billions of dollars on a Great Lakes cleanup patterned after restoration programs under way in the Florida Everglades and the East Coast’s Chesapeake Bay won’t be easy, Rep. Vernon Ehlers told a group of conservationists Friday.

The Michigan Republican said it is a daunting challenge to get lawmakers from outside the region to appreciate the magnificence of the world’s largest freshwater system, let alone care about the sewage spills, toxic sediments and invasive species that plague it.

Ehlers pointed to one Congressional committee debate several years back about funding for zebra mussel research as an example of how irrelevant Great Lakes issues are for many members of Congress.

“I am adamantly opposed to this,” Ehlers recalled one West Coast lawmaker grumbling. “I see no reason in the world why we should spend taxpayer money studying the muscles of zebras!”

The story got a roar out of the crowd Friday that had assembled on the far shore of Lake Michigan for a two-day strategizing session on how to win congressional support for a sweeping, $20 billion Great Lakes restoration plan, but Ehlers warned the cleanup advocates that they have a serious problem ahead.

“We are losing political clout in the Great Lakes area,” he said. “If you look at what percentage of Congress has been represented by Great Lakes states for the 40 years, it has been a steady downhill slide as people move to the south, southeast, southwest and California.”

It is a trend that is showing no signs of slowing and it, of course, means dwindling representation in Congress for Great Lakes states.

“We really have to act fast, before the next (congressional) redistricting, before we lose the strength we now have,” said Ehlers, who said he is interested in sponsoring the restoration plan being put together by an Environmental Protection Agency-led coalition.

In May 2004 President Bush ordered the EPA to establish the “Great Lakes Interagency Task Force” to develop a streamlined cleanup program for the lakes.

That came after Congress released a report showing that $1.7 billion had been spent on dozens of state and federal restoration programs between 1992 and 2001, but there was little coordination among those efforts. The U.S. waters of the five Great Lakes are jointly managed by Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The federal government also plays a role.

The EPA responded by pulling together a task force of conservationists, industry leaders as well as federal, state, tribal and local officials to look at the biggest problems facing the lakes, and come up with an estimate to fix them.

In July, the group released their estimate – up to $20 billion over the next 15 years.

Public comment on that cleanup blueprint ended this week, and it is expected to be finalized in December.

And then comes the hard part – finding the money.

Compared to the Everglades or Chesapeake Bay, any Great Lakes restoration plan likely will be a profoundly more complex – and expensive – undertaking, given the size of the lakes, their vast pollution problems and the bureaucratic difficulties in coordinating dozens of local, state and federal management agencies that have a role in managing the lakes.


But one conservationist behind the $8 billion Florida Everglades restoration said this week that there is reason to be confident more federal dollars could start flowing from Washington into the Great Lakes, and it’s not necessarily because of a federal love for the lakes’ deep blue.

It may have more to do with a lust for purple; in the looming red state-blue state battle for the next presidency, the so-called purple Great Lakes battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and Minnesota are likely to be some of the most fiercely contested.

And that, says Tom Martin, former co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, could bump the debate over the lakes’ future onto the national stage.

“The complexity that makes (a restoration) more difficult to coordinate also makes it politically strategic,” said Martin, now the executive vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Federal money is sure to be tighter in the coming years, given the early projections that put hurricane damages the Gulf Coast has suffered in the $100 billion range.

Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Office, said this week that hurricane relief should be the nation’s top priority, but he said it should not preclude federal investment in the Great Lakes in the coming years.

“The Great Lakes are more than a lot of water. They’re more than drinking water,” said Buchsbaum. “They define our geography, our climate, our economy, and the way we live.”

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