TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. —
In Congress, vote-rich states such as Illinois and Ohio, along with neighboring Pennsylvania and New York, pack considerable punch when they stick together.
Other clean-water programs lacking such an impassioned constituency haven’t fared as well. Federal funds that provide loans for drinking water and sewage treatment improvements also were cut 80 percent. No one has come to their rescue.
“The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is among the most fiercely defended programs in the country,” said Andy Buchsbaum, regional director of the National Wildlife Federation. “The last two years, Congress has given it the exact level of funding the president called for in his budget. That’s almost unheard of, given the partisan toxicity right now.”
Even Republicans who were elected with tea party backing — Reps. Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble of Wisconsin and Dan Benishek of Michigan among them — protect the program. The irony isn’t lost on some budget-cutting purists.
“It looks like a lot of so-called conservative Republicans have their sacred cows,” said Jack Hoogendyk, a tea party activist and former Michigan state legislator who ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
If he were elected, Hoogendyk said, he’d vote against the Great Lakes program.
“I suppose I’d be out of a job two years later,” he admitted.
President Richard Nixon signed the initial Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with Canada in 1972, when polluted Lake Erie had been declared biologically dead.
Despite some progress, scientists warn that pollution has brought the lakes near “tipping points” of irreversible damage. Lake Huron’s once-thriving salmon fishery has all but disappeared.
President George W. Bush signed cleanup legislation but provided little money. Obama requested ample funding.
The federal grants go to government agencies, nonprofits, Indian tribes and universities. They’ve restored wildlife habitat, advanced cleanups of river mouths fouled with PCBs and strengthened defenses against the dreaded Asian carp.