Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Congress members take second shot at renewing Great Lakes program

Posted By on Wed, Jan 14, 2015 at 3:33 PM

In December, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would have reauthorized funding for a crucial Great Lakes environmental program. But the Senate never voted on the bill. Now, similar legislation is back in front of the House.

The bill provides for another five years of funding – from 2016 through 2020 – for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. It sets aside $300 million a year for a variety of projects targeting habitat, invasive species, pollution, water quality, and navigation issues in the lakes and their tributaries. It's cosponsored by a bipartisan group of House members, including Democrat Louise Slaughter and Republicans Chris Collins and Tom Reed.

GLRI funding has supported several local projects that have restored wetlands near Braddock Bay, led to a new model Monroe County can use to determine when to close public beaches to swimming, and developed plans for reducing problematic nutrient pollution in Genesee River tributaries.

But another major project needs at least some GLRI funding. The US Army Corps of Engineers wants to restore wetlands and a barrier beach in Braddock Bay, a project that Senator Chuck Schumer says could cost as much as $9 million. Schumer supports the plan; so do Slaughter and Greece town officials. The Corps will have to apply for GLRI funding once it's available, says Eric Walker, spokesperson for Slaughter.

Congress first authorized the GLRI in 2010, though its approved varied funding levels for the program over the years. In December, the House passed legislation that would have provided the program with $300 million a year from 2015 through 2019, but for reasons that aren't clear, the Senate never acted on the bill. With a new Congress now in place, the House again needs to pass the bill – so does the Senate – in order for it to become law. (The GLRI received $300 million for 2015 in an appropriations bill, so it is funded for this year.)

The House will probably pass the bill again, given that it's under the same Republican leadership that it was in December. But its fate in the Senate is less certain: Republicans assumed control of the chamber this month, and selected Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who has a generally dismal environmental record, to serve as the Senate's leader.

That doesn't mean that McConnell or his GOP colleagues would block the legislation, though, just that it's a possibility. Republicans actually have a few compelling reasons to pass it, including some political benefits. The Senate GOP includes some members from Great Lakes swing states who will be up for election in 2016, and a few have emphasized protecting the lakes' waters and ecosystems.

Ohio Senator Rob Portman provides one example. He's vice chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force and he's supported several key Great Lakes bills. And back in August, his state suffered a high-profile environmental and public health calamity: a toxic algae bloom on Lake Erie was sucked into Toledo's drinking water treatment plant, leading the city to issue a three-day warning against drinking tap water.

Potentially toxic blue-green algae have been a problem in Lake Erie for years. And come election time, Portman would benefit from being able to say he supported legislation that directs funding toward solving that sort of very public problem.

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