Now is not the time to cut back on Great Lakes funding

Mother Nature gets credit for a big assist in the fight to keep the Great Lakes healthy, with ice coverage now topping 92 percent for the first time in nearly four decades.

The long, cold winter means the lakes are far above the 50 percent-60 percent ice coverage that they have been experiencing in recent years, and that should mean higher lake levels this spring and summer.

It’s a step in the right direction but not a complete recovery from the evaporation that has dropped lake levels to near-historic lows as of late.

But the lakes won’t get as much help from Washington this year if President Barack Obama’s proposed budget holds. Since 2010, the administration has asked for $300 million annually to fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. But the fiscal year 2015 budget calls for cutting the allocation by $25 million.

The reason is simple: across-the-board belt-tightening. Most programs got a cut of some kind in the president’s budget, and administration officials have made clear that the reduction for the Great Lakes initiative isn’t about substance or disapproval of the program, it’s just about money.

We suppose that’s reasonable by financial measures; nearly everyone believes that the federal budget can be trimmed.

But the Great Lakes are this region’s most significant environmental treasure and priority, and they’re in trouble. If ever there were a time to maintain or boost preservation efforts, it would be now.

Back in 2009, congressional backing for Great Lakes clean-up projects had hit a wall. Congress passed the Great Lakes Legacy Act in 2002, and reauthorized it in 2008, but funding and coordination were still big problems.

The Obama administration created the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2009, and kicked it off with a $475-million allocation, which dropped to $300 million a year after that.

Since 2010, the initiative has gone to work cleaning up 43 “toxic hot spots” identified around the lakes – places where industry or agriculture have so polluted the lakes that marine life and drinking water are in danger.

Many have been abated, including some key spots in Michigan.

The initiative has also taken the lead in fighting invasive species in the lakes, including the battle to keep Asian carp out. Again, there has been progress, but the fight is far from over, and funding is key to continuing the efforts.

This issue is no trifle. For those of us who live in the region, the lakes are a primary source of recreation and drinking water, as well as a key to our economy.

For the nation, the lakes represent the largest usable freshwater reserve in the world, a key asset now that will only grow in importance in the future.

The money spent cleaning up and protecting the Great Lakes pays back many times over, sometimes literally. A Grand Valley State University study of a $10-million shoreline reclamation project along Muskegon Lake – which is connected to Lake Michigan – found $66 million in economic benefits.

Belt-tightening or no, the lakes are a priority. Congress ought to find a way to keep restoration going at full funding.