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US Gov’t Draws Up Plan To Rescue Great Lakes

February 22, 2010

The Great Lakes, beset by toxic contamination, invasive species and disappearing wildlife habitat, are the center of attention in a new five-year plan by the Obama administration to clean up the vast ecosystem.

A document on the plan was released at a news conference in Washington on Sunday by Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The plan is for $2.2 billion in funding to be set aside for reviving the lakes after more than a century of damage.

According to the Associated Press, the funds will be used to clean up the region’s most polluted areas, restore wetland habitat, improve water quality in shallow areas, clean up beaches and shorelines, and instate a “zero tolerance policy” on future invasion of foreign species, such as the Asian Carp, which has overrun portions of the Mississippi and is likely to enter Lake Michigan if nothing is done to prevent it.

“We’re committed to creating a new standard of care that will leave the Great Lakes better for the next generation,” Jackson said in a statement. The administration promises a strategy for monitoring the health of the ecosystem holding federal agencies accountable for putting the plan into action.

In 2008, during his presidential campaign, Obama pledged $5 billion over a 10 year period toward cleaning up the Great Lakes. The pledge was developed by agencies, scientists, and activists all working together.

Congress approved an initial installment of $475 million last year. The plan is expected to receive yearly appropriations of the same amount through 2014, except for $300 million Obama requested this month in his 2011 budget proposal.

The plan contracts 16 federal agencies that will work with state, local and tribal governments and private organizations. Among the goals hoped to be met by 2014, is to finish clean up at five toxic hotspots that have been put off for two decades, reduce the amount of invasive species in the lakes by more than 40 percent, cut down on phosphorous runoff, and protect nearly 100,000 acres of wetland habitat.

The plan will also help bring back endangered and threatened species. One such species, the lake sturgeon, is endangered due to over-harvesting and habitat degradation. 25,000 young sturgeon are promised for stocking programs. Officials said with proper enforcement of existing environmental rules and the creation of new ones where needed, the fish would be safe to eat, the waters would be safe for drinking and swimming, and native plants and animals would thrive.

“We now have a golden opportunity, even a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to make huge progress,” Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, co-chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, said in a telephone interview with AP on Saturday. “We’ve been talking about this for a long time. Now the federal government is putting some real resources behind it.”

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which represents other environmental groups in the Great Lakes region, said that Congress should boost Obama’s 2011 spending request to $475 million, but they said too much restoration money was being focused on fighting the Asian Carp.

The carp is a serious threat to the region’s $7 billion sport fishing industry as it eats up all the plankton, which in turn, destroys the regional food chain. But, money should come from somewhere else within the federal budget, said the coalition.

Although $58 million will be spent on the fight to remove the threat of the Asian Carp this year alone, it is far less money than what will be spent on other needs in the region, said Cameron Davis, EPA’s senior adviser on the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes provide 30 million residents with drinking water and are the backbone of the regional economy. The lakes are a valuable resource for tourism, recreation, manufacturing and shipping.

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