Conservation groups urge Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation to continue pushing for $475 million for Great Lakes restoration

MADISON — Groups in Wisconsin will receive over $29 million for 50 projects to restore Lakes Michigan and Superior as part of a $475 million federal program to restore the Great Lakes, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Tuesday.

The awards are part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a federal program to restore fish and wildlife habitat, clean up toxic pollution, reduce nonpoint source pollution and control and prevent invasive species, all essential steps to restoring the Great Lakes. President Obama announced the $475 million initiative last year, and Congress enacted and fully funded the measure.

“Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation has been instrumental in making Great Lakes restoration and economic recovery a priority for the nation,” said Melissa Malott, water program director, Clean Wisconsin. “We all benefit from healthier Great Lakes. Investing in restoration will create jobs now and lead to long-term economic benefits for Wisconsin and the region.”

The Great Lakes face serious threats. More than 185 invasive species in the Lakes cost the region at least $200 million annually in damages and control costs. Toxic pollution threatens the health of people and wildlife, and sewage overflows close beaches. Habitat destruction hurts water quality, wildlife, and the region’s outdoor recreation industry. Excess nutrients choke waterways and ecosystems with toxic algae.

“These investments will accelerate our ability to restore Lakes Michigan and Superior and the other Great Lakes,” said Malott. “This is an important step forward in the ongoing effort to restore a resource that millions of Wisconsinites depend on for their drinking water, jobs and way of life. It’s going to take a long-term commitment to restore this incredible resource.”

For years, the federal government was slow to respond while threats to the Lakes mounted; now, there is a backlog of work. When the EPA put out its request for restoration proposals, the agency was inundated. It received proposals that outpaced funding by more than 7-to-1; many projects will not be funded.

The EPA’s announcement comes as federal lawmakers continue to work on the 2011 budget. While President Obama has reduced funding to $300 million for fiscal year 2011, organizations are urging Congress to fully fund the initiative at $475 million.

The Brookings Institution found that restoring the Great Lakes will bring the eight-state region at least $2 in economic benefit for every $1 investment. Milwaukee would experience between $1.5 billion and $2.3 billion in economic benefit if the comprehensive Great Lakes restoration plan were enacted.

“Restoring our Great lakes is important to our ecosystem and the time we spend with family and friends. Great Lakes restoration and economic recovery hinge on a sustained commitment by the federal government,” said Malott. “Otherwise, the problems will get worse and the solutions will get more costly.”