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How the sequester might affect cleanup projects in the Great Lakes

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but folks in Washington aren’t exactly getting along these days.

They couldn’t agree on how to cut the deficit, and now we’re facing automatic, across-the-board spending cuts from the federal government.

The cuts are scheduled to start March 1.

$85 billion will have to be stripped out of the federal budget this year alone.

The White House sent a press release detailing how these cuts might affect environmental programs in Michigan.

Here's what they wrote:

Michigan would lose about $5.9 million in environmental funding to ensure clean water and air quality, as well as prevent pollution from pesticides and hazardous waste. In addition, Michigan could lose another $1.5 million in grants for fish and wildlife protection.

We heard a lot about about how the sequester might affect things like airports, school funding, and Medicare, but we wanted to know more about the numbers above.

How might environmental programs in the region be affected?

Andy Buchsbaum, from the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office, came in to talk "sequester" with me. 

It's such a complicated and wonky subject that others have used pictures of animals and Hollywood sex appeal to try to liven things up.

When I asked Buchsbaum about tomorrow's sequester deadline, he said March 1st isn't the drop-dead deadline,  March 27th is.

"Apparently the fiscal cliff is more like a fiscal slope," said Buchsbaum.


"That's the date at which budget authority for the government runs out and if they don't reach a budget deal by that date the government shuts down," he said.

So there's a second deadline where some budgets might be restored, or not cut as severely, or they could simply let the automatic cuts continue.

Given the lack of communication in Washington, and the desire of some not to conflate the sequester with the March 27 budget bill, the across-the-board cuts could continue.

Say the cuts go forward

Buchsbaum said those cuts would impact Great Lakes clean-up.

"They could have devastating effects. It's about an 8% cut across the board for Great Lakes programs, particularly for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which is the program that has been restoring the Great Lakes, and creating jobs and making the lakes healthy again," said Buchsbaum.

That equals about a $25 million cut this fiscal year. More cuts could come in the following years.

"The Great Lakes restoration money that we're seeing now already is much less than the first year."

The GLRI received $475 million in its first year, the following year the budget was dropped to $300 million.

"And so now we're talking about going below that $300 million, $275 million or less, you're really starting to cut into the muscle of Great Lakes restoration," he said.

The Great Lakes have never seen restoration money from the federal government like this before.

Here's a map of all the projects the federal government has funded over the years:

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects since 2010.
Credit GLRI
Environmental Protection Agency
Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects since 2010.

Some are saying these continual budget battles are, at their core, a debate about the size and role of the federal government. So I asked Buchsbaum, why should the federal government get involved in this kind of work?

He said he thinks the debate is really about priorities.

"There's going to be a federal government. There always is going to be, and it's going to have certain roles," Buchsbaum said.

"These are international, inter-state waters. They can't be cleaned up by states. They can't be cleaned up by cities. They're  a shared resource by two countries, and by probably a quarter of the population of the country, so if there's ever a federal priority, it's this one."

Return on invested tax dollars

In their report, the National Wildlife Federation points to studies that show the return on investment for Great Lakes clean-up.

  • A Brookings Institution report concluded that for every $1 invested in Great Lakes restoration, $2 will be generated in new jobs, development, and increased property values.
  • A study by Grand Valley State University economists found that a $10 million restoration project at Muskegon Lake in Michigan produced more than $66 million in economic benefits via increased property values, more tourism and higher tax revenues.

So Buchsbaum's group and others will be working to convince legislators in the coming weeks that despite inevitable cuts, cuts to Great Lakes restoration shouldn't happen.
His group and others are hosting Great Lakes Days in Washington D.C. where environmental leaders and activists will lobby Congress and the Obama Administration to keep funding Great Lakes restoration.

Their voice will be one of thousands clamoring for funding from the federal government as the next fiscal deadline approaches.

We've had the "fiscal cliff" and "the sequester."

What will the March 27th deadline be called?

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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