CHICAGO - The Bush administration laid out an ambitious plan yesterday to clean up and protect the Great Lakes, but even some of the president's allies consider the $20 billion price tag to be unrealistic.
Led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a group of local, state, tribal and federal officials called for more aggressive efforts to clean up contaminated ports, fix aging sewer systems, block invasive species and improve the shoreline.
The group, organized by an executive order President Bush signed in May 2004, urged Congress and the states to make the world's largest freshwater system a greater priority.
However, questions remain about where lawmakers will find enough money to solve the myriad problems facing the lakes, most of which have been the subject of previous government reports and repeated pleas for help from scientists and environmental activists.
Legislation pending in Congress would allocate much less for the Great Lakes, between $4 billion and $8 billion over five years. Although those bills have bipartisan support, none has come close to winning approval.
During his re-election campaign last year, Bush formed the task force of regional leaders and ordered it to spend no longer than a year figuring out how to restore the Great Lakes, the source of one-fifth of the world's fresh water.
After several meetings during the past year, the group came up with the wish list released yesterday.
However, a top EPA official said the $20 billion figure could change and cautioned the draft proposal has yet to win the administration's full endorsement.
The most expensive item on the list of proposals released yesterday is nearly $14 billion over five years to upgrade sewage systems in cities around the Great Lakes, with 55 percent of the money coming from the federal government and the rest to be paid by the states.
Sewage overflows are considered one reason beaches along the lakes occasionally are closed due to high bacteria levels in the water. However, finding enough money to finance improvements at sewage treatment plants is a perennial battle in Congress.
Another recommendation from the group of Great Lakes leaders is a more concerted effort to stop invasive species from entering the lakes, mostly by cracking down on ships bringing trade goods into the region.
Ballast water drawn by ships in overseas ports and dumped in the United States is considered the leading way exotic creatures such as the sea lamprey and zebra mussels began to wreak ecological havoc in the lakes.
Most ships now declare they do not bring in ballast water. However, scientists think there still is a risk that when ships draw water from the lakes as ballast for the return voyage, some residual water in the tanks could leak into the lakes.
For the past three years, Congress has been debating ways to prevent more invasive species from entering the nation's waterways. Lawmakers have not been able to resolve differences between the shipping industry and environmental groups.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.