Are McCain and Obama Sincere in Protecting Our Greatest Source of Drinking Water?


How much is a national treasure worth to the U.S. taxpayer? It is $5 billion, $20 billion or even more?

That's one of the issues getting attention from major party nominees Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama in this fall's heated presidential campaign. The riches in question are the Great Lakes -- an estimated 95 percent of the available surface water in the United States. But electoral riches are also at stake. The eight states that border on the lakes contain 131 electoral votes, and most of the states are considered up for grabs on Nov. 4.

The lakes are an important source of freshwater -- they contain enough water to cover the 48 contiguous states to a depth of 9.5 feet. Overlooked by coastal states, the Great Lakes shoreline is equal to almost 44 percent of the circumference of the earth, and Michigan alone has more shoreline than any state but Alaska.

But the lakes are in trouble. On Sept. 22, Obama's campaign announced a five-point plan for the lakes headlined by $5 billion in new federal funds "to jump-start" ecological restoration work. Asked to respond, the McCain team provided a statement from Republican Party chairpersons from six of the Great Lakes states, pointing out the Arizona senator's support for a regional Great Lakes water compact.

McCain, they said, "has a long record of working in a bipartisan manner, which is exactly what is needed to bring about real reform and solutions to challenges that we need to address now. Barack Obama's solution, like we've seen before, throws taxpayer money at the problem instead of reaching across party lines and working toward a comprehensive solution."

The Obama announcement and McCain response came just days after the annual meeting of the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition, a nonprofit group organized in 2004 to battle for significant new federal and state spending on restoration of the Great Lakes.

Although the candidates' competing campaign statements are the most explicit discussion of the Great Lakes in recent years, this is not the first presidential election in which the lakes and their associated electoral votes have appeared on the political radar. In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush announced his "no net loss" policy for wetlands while campaigning for president near the Lake Erie shore in Michigan. In 2000, Vice President Al Gore released a five-point Great Lakes plan days before the election. And in 2004, President George W. Bush issued an executive order declaring the Great Lakes a national treasure and setting in motion a collaborative planning process to restore the lakes' health.

That directive resulted in a $20 billion restoration plan announced to fanfare in Chicago in December 2005. It also resulted in considerable cynicism among journalists and some Great Lakes advocates, as Bush budgets since then have failed to fund most of the plan's recommendations. The president's proposed budget for fiscal 2009 would have cut 16 percent from Great Lakes funding. Given the shaky state of the economy and federal budget, some observers are questioning whether either Obama or McCain will be able to do much better.

"Bush signed the executive order in a closely contested election year, which was worthwhile and important, but once he got elected he turned his back on it," said Jordan Lubetkin, spokesperson for the Healing Our Waters group. "There will be a lot of promises made during election season, but we want to make sure both John McCain and Barack Obama carry water on their promises to the Great Lakes."

The Obama plan includes:

  • A $5 billion Great Lakes Trust Fund for sewage repairs, wetland restoration and cleanup of toxic sediments. His campaign says the trust fund is on top of the previous $20 billion long-term restoration plan and will be in place during his first term. The revenue would come from "rolling back tax breaks and loopholes for big oil and gas companies."

  • A strategy to reduce new toxic pollution.

  • A "zero tolerance" policy for invasive species.

  • A coordinator to make sense of multiple local, state, regional and federal programs that affect the Great Lakes.

Why should the Great Lakes get the federal treatment? For the region's politicians and conservation advocates, the answer begins with one word: Everglades. When Congress authorized $8 billion for restoration of Florida's legendary river of grass in 2000, calls for a similar federal commitment to the Great Lakes multiplied.

"The Everglades are a wonderful place, but it's a minor ecosystem compared to the Great Lakes," Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle told USA Today in 2007. "Yet the federal government stepped in to help the state of Florida. The Great Lakes need the same kind of national attention."

The $20 billion plan set in motion by the 2004 Bush executive order was supposed to pave the way for that attention. But almost from the start, it has lacked plausibility with some observers.

For example, the biggest-ticket item in the plan -- $7.535 billion in federal grants over five years to modernize Great Lakes sewage treatment systems -- is conceded as unlikely to pass. The direct proposed federal grants would be far sweeter than the loans offered by states outside the Great Lakes region through revolving funds.

An even bigger reason the plan never gained traction may be that the Bush administration didn't take it seriously. It was former EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt who came up with the idea for the regional collaborative and shepherded the 2004 executive order to Bush's desk. When Leavitt moved on to become secretary of Health and Human Services in 2005, the Great Lakes lost their highest-level advocate in Washington.

The question then becomes: Will either McCain or Obama be Great Lakes advocates in their own right?

"McCain has the record, the 'Bull Moose' attitude, and ability to protect our lakes," said Rob Sisson, past president of the Michigan chapter of Republicans for Environmental Protection. "(He) will leave restoration of the Great Lakes as one of his great legacies. Conservation, in his mind, is a moral imperative, not a campaign promise."

The Obama campaign points out that the candidate and his family have lived by the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago for 20 years. "He knows, understands and cares about the Great Lakes and has the record to prove it." Jane Elder, a longtime Great Lakes advocate and founder of the Sierra Club's Great Lakes program, said the plan shows "Great Lakes issues and their urgency are higher on the radar screen for Obama's camp than McCain's."

Congress did dispose of two Great Lakes-related measures before adjourning. Lawmakers approved an interstate water compact designed to limit raids on Great Lakes water and also OK'd reauthorization of the Great Lakes Legacy Act, a funding source for cleanup of contaminated sediments in bays and harbors.

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