March 2nd is Great Lakes Day. It’s an event that takes place in Washington D.C. each year to highlight the importance of the Great Lakes region, its economy and ecology. Jeff Skelding is campaign director with the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, one of the sponsors of Great Lakes Day. He recently spoke with WTIP reporter Carah Thomas.
WTIP: Welcome Mr. Skelding. What can you tell us about Great Lakes Day?
Skelding: The Healing Our Waters Coalition and the Great Lakes Commission partner together to host what will be, in the modern day times, the seventh time we’ve done this, it’s Great Lakes Day in Washington. And we’ll be bringing about 125 of the leading activists and decision-makers and spokespeople and defenders of the Great Lakes. We’ll be pulling them into Washington D.C. for a couple of days, where they’ll be meeting with virtually every congressional office throughout the eight state Great Lakes region, talking to them about the importance of federal funding for cleaning up the lakes.
WTIP: Why is federal funding for the Great Lakes important?
Skelding: The Great Lakes face a myriad of ecological challenges and the purpose of the coalition is to get congress’s attention and in these tough economic times, continue to ensure that significant federal funding is flowing to the region to address the top environmental problems facing the lakes. The challenge of cleaning up the Great Lakes of course is enormous. The problems have been around for decades. The price tag on those problems is in the multiple billions. Now is the time to address those problems, before they get more costly to fix. And those problems are things like contaminated sediments in the St. Louis River near Duluth, habitat restoration, which is a challenge that exists throughout the entire Great Lakes region, addressing invasive species, and eliminating new introductions of invasive species.
WTIP: Last week the U.S. House of Representatives voted to cut funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and other clean water programs. What can you tell us about that?
Skelding: The continuing resolution that was adopted by the house last week essentially includes dramatic cuts for many, many clean water programs, including the one that is nearest and dearest to our hearts, which is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That’s the big new program that injected an historic level of funding in 2010 for cleaning up the lakes. The total of that program was $475 million, and what that continuing resolution called for last week, from the house Republican leadership, was $225 million, so it is a significant cut that we are squarely focused on and that will be a large part of the conversation next week in Washington when we host Great Lakes Day and have our advocates and supporters come to town.
WTIP: Another program that is in danger of being defunded pretty dramatically is the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which helps communities stop sewage contamination. What can you tell us about that?
Skelding: That program is a longstanding Clean Water Act Program that has been around since the early 70’s that initially provided grants to municipalities and others that run sewage treatment plants to repair and replace aging infrastructure. It’s been one of the most successful programs in the history of the Clean Water Act and the history of this country. It also is on the cutting room table, at least on the house side, this year. We think that that is a wrong direction to go in, not only from an environmental, clean Great Lakes perspective, but it’s also a jobs driver. That program has demonstrated success in fueling the regional economy in terms of creating jobs and other economic benefits. Our message to Congress next week, a big part of our message is going to be, if your concern is cutting the budget and cutting spending and addressing the deficit, the GLRI and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund are not the programs to cut because these are the programs that can actually have positive economic benefits.
WTIP: What do you hope will come out of Great Lakes Day this year? What are your hopes for this event?
Skelding: We hope that that $225 million that the house republican leadership enacted last week, we hope that that number goes up. We need the Great Lakes senators, many of whom have been champions of cleaning up the Great Lakes, this is their time to step up and make sure that that number goes up. Because $225 million is not going to address the existing need, and that will be our message to senators, and they’ll have their shot at the budget. Our top line message is to make that number go up.
WTIP: We’ve been speaking with Jeffrey Skelding of the Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition. He’ll be in Washington next week for Great Lakes Day, March 2nd, to lobby congress for continued federal funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and other clean water programs affecting the Great Lakes. Is there anything you would like to add Mr. Skelding?
Skelding: I’ll just reinforce the economic message here. Our coalition partnered with the Brookings Institution, which is a big think tank here in Washington, to do an analysis of what a significant federal investment in cleaning up the Great Lakes would mean economically to the region, and their top line conclusion was that it’s a two-to-one return on your investment in the short term. For every dollar you invest in cleaning up the Great Lakes, you get two back in the short term. That’s a powerful message. It goes beyond just the environmental implications of cleaning up the lakes. It also speaks to what a federal investment in cleaning up the lakes can do for the regional economy, which is, as we all know, very important to a region like the Great Lakes where the economy has suffered over many decades. We think this program is a way to help economic recovery.
For more information about Great Lakes Day, March 2nd in Washington D.C., visit the Healing Our Waters website at healthylakes.org.