One virtue of the bipartisan budget agreement crafted by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan comes in the form of relief from the wrongheaded sequester. The sequester is the plan that everyone considered so bad it never would happen. Yet it has moved ahead, axing an array of discretionary spending, including defense, medical research, education and border security. The budget deal added $45 billion for such programs, and members of the congressional appropriations committees now are deciding where the money will flow.
Few better examples of worthy discretionary spending can be found than the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. It is the product of much analysis and evaluation of what is required to repair the lakes, a natural treasure and regional economic engine, accounting for 95 percent of the country’s surface freshwater.
A similar effort has been launched in the Everglades. The projected investment necessary to restore the Great Lakes approaches $25 billion. So far, $1.3 billion has been put up during the past four years. What advocates, including U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and U.S. Rep. David Joyce, have proposed is $300 million for this year. That rates an improvement over last year ($285 million) and more in line with previous commitments.
The Senate leadership has recommended $300 million. In the House, as the sequester squeeze took hold, the proposed sum slipped to $60 million, before it climbed to $210 million.
Here is an initiative that generates bipartisan support, and it is clear why. The dollars directed to the Great Lakes already have made a difference. Land purchases on Kelleys Island have aided a vulnerable, prairie-like alvar ecosystem and a rare red cedar forest. Two specialty boats pick up debris in the Cleveland harbor, as much as 800 tons per year. A pile of steel slag has been removed from the Black River in Lorain, benefiting the water quality, fish and wildlife.
Lake Erie Bluffs Park now resides along the shoreline. The Lake Erie watersnake no longer faces extinction. There have been massive sediment cleanups along miles of the Ashtabula and Ottawa rivers, improving habitats and water quality. This is how an effective restoration proceeds, step by step, each advance, larger and smaller, from protecting against invasive species to curbing runoff, enhancing the whole.
One crucial element is sustaining the momentum, or what the $300 million would deliver.
The harm in the sequester is taking aim at such productive elements of the federal government. A program such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative isn’t driving the country’s problem with budget deficits for the long term. It represents an investment with a handsome return, reflecting sound stewardship of our natural heritage, or a generational obligation.
The shame is, after this episode of relief, the sequester continues to bite, by 2016 non-defense discretionary spending at $473 billion a year, or $100 billion below the 2010 level, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That must be fixed. For now, additional dollars are available, and there are few more productive ways to spend the money than in maintaining the effort to restore the Great Lakes.