The Great Lakes are ailing, scientists warn, on the verge of ecological ruin from big-city sewage and invasive species. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama promise to support restoration and cleanup, yet the nation's financial crisis calls into question how those efforts will be funded.
Advocates for the lakes region are begging the next president to support a rescue plan expected to cost more than $20 billion. They liken it to the Florida Everglades restoration that Congress approved eight years ago — and it, too, is struggling for lack of money.
"The current economic crisis is even more of a reason why both candidates should articulate comprehensive, detailed Great Lakes cleanup commitments," said Jeff Skelding, national campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. "Investment in cleanup of the lakes is also an investment in a healthy regional economy."
The Great Lakes region includes crucial states in the presidential race: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The McCain and Obama campaigns agree that the Great Lakes need help but argue over the approach.
While campaigning for re-election in 2004, President Bush established an interagency task force that oversaw development of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy. It called for upgrading wastewater and sewage treatment systems, stemming the exotic species tide, restoring wetlands and wildlife habitat and cleaning up toxic sediments. But the administration provided little money.
Obama, an Illinois senator, said last month that McCain had "stood with Bush" in failing to support adequate spending on the lakes. The Democrat, whose home city of Chicago anchors Lake Michigan's southern shore, released a five-point plan featuring a $5 billion "down payment" toward implementing the restoration.
McCain's campaign said the Obama plan "throws taxpayers' money at the problem." Yet aides said the Republican senator from Arizona also supports the restoration, although he has put forward no detailed plan or spending commitment. Obama is a co-sponsor of legislation to implement the restoration; McCain is not.
"The Great Lakes restoration must be a bipartisan initiative that brings on board all regions of the country in supporting the lakes as a national treasure," McCain campaign spokeswoman Sarah Lenti said in a written statement.
Robert Sisson, a national staffer with Republicans for Environmental Protection, said McCain's support of the lakes was sincere. But the budget crisis makes any specific funding pledge at this point an empty gesture, he said.
McCain is trying to have it both ways, said Heather Zichal, Obama's energy and environmental policy director.
"If John McCain is saying this restoration can take place without a significant federal contribution, he's just paying lip service when he claims to support it," Zichal said.
She acknowledged that money would be tight. But hailing from a Great Lakes state, Obama understands the lakes' dire situation and would give them top billing, Zichal said.
"You don't have to explain to a Great Lakes senator why this should be a priority," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. "It's in our DNA."
Obama's plan also calls for appointing a Great Lakes czar within the Environmental Protection Agency to coordinate efforts on the federal, state and local levels.
Other proposals include stepped-up efforts to identify and reduce toxic pollution, promote water conservation and crack down on ship ballast discharges responsible for most of the 185 invasive species that threaten the lakes' ecosystem.
The Great Lakes system holds 90 percent of the nation's surface fresh water. Yet it's under assault from sewage overflows in cities such as Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee. One study warned that the lakes were reaching a "tipping point" where they might be unable to heal themselves from pollution.
A recent University of Notre Dame report said invasive species arriving in the ballast tanks of cargo ships cost the regional economy $200 million a year. The most feared potential invader is the Asian carp — a 100-pound eating machine that gorges on plankton, an essential component of the aquatic food web.
Obama has pledged to finish construction of an electronic barrier in Chicago to keep the carp from invading Lake Michigan from the Illinois River. Biologists say if the carp gains a foothold in the lakes, it would be catastrophic for the region's $4 billion fishing industry.
In 2006, Obama inserted $400,000 for the barrier into an emergency bill for the Iraq war and hurricane relief. Additional money was included in a 2007 package for water projects enacted over Bush's veto. Obama supported the override, while McCain sided with the president.
McCain's campaign described the $23 billion measure as a budget buster, loaded with "pork barrel projects that only benefit individual congressmen and their districts." Obama's campaign said McCain's opposition showed he wasn't serious about supporting the lakes.
Obama favors restoring federal authority to protect wetlands and other waterways that was eroded by Supreme Court rulings in two cases from the Great Lakes region during the Bush years, Zichal said. Scientists say loss of wetlands is a serious threat to the lakes, where they filter toxins and provide fish spawning areas.
The McCain campaign did not respond to a question about his position on that issue.