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Obama tries to cut Great Lakes budget: Why Congress objects

For the third year in a row, President Obama wants to cut funds for Great Lakes restoration, but Congress is concerned about invasive Asian carp. 

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In this July 26, 2015 photo, a piping plover wearing leg bands affixed by researchers stands on the shore of Lake Ontario in Jefferson County, N.Y., which bodes well for the recovery of the endangered bird's Great Lakes population.

Elizabeth Truskowski/New York Department of Environmental Conservation/AP

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It all began with fish DNA. 

The discovery of Asian carp DNA in samples of Great Lakes water stoked fears that the highly invasive fish was moving into new territory. Whether a stray fish was carried by a hungry bird or it made a surprising, 10-foot leap over the electric fence designed to keep it out, the discovery led to the launch of a federal initiative in 2010 to restore the Great Lakes ecology.

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"It’s really important that we stress that this isn’t just an environment program that we want so we can fish and go to the beach, this is really important to our economy," Tim Eder, the executive director of the Michigan-based conservation organization, the Great Lakes Commission, says in a phone interview. "This is who we are as a region." 

On Tuesday, President Obama tried for the last time to do what he has tried for the past two years – improve the federal deficit by cutting the budget for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) from $300 million to $250 million, the Associated Press reported. But a rare bipartisan move, House representatives are already rallying to keep money flowing as they have done for the last two years.

The president cut next year's proposed budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by $400 million overall since last year, so the $50 million decrease for the GLRI is part of the president's broader scheme to reduce the country's massive federal deficit. 

Despite the president's attempt at fiscal responsibility, Midwesterners fear the cuts would halt the progress on a conservation project that impacts not just the environment of a key trans-national waterway, but also a traditional driver of the US economy. 

"This was the arsenal of democracy, in World War II, we were the ones that turned out all those tanks and all those planes, and that is in large part because of access to fresh water," Mr. Eder says. "It’s the reason that Detroit and Chicago and Toronto all got built here." 

Although the Great Lakes had been at high risk since the early 2000s, the discovery of invasive Asian carp DNA on the wrong side of an electric barrier prompted the creation of the federal initiative in 2010.

“The fish, if they did invade the Great Lakes, would be devastating to the ecology and to the value of the Great Lakes,” Mr. Eder says.

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The GLRI provided resources to make a preventative plan for the Asian carp, and the US corps of engineers has suggested a series of solutions including physical barriers. Wildlife officials have also engaged in "rapid-response exercises" to net and remove millions of pounds of the fish from the waterways that connect to the Great Lakes, Eder says. 

Few fish have been found in the Great Lakes, but Eder worries that they could easily take over the lakes and ruin a $7 billion fishing industry if efforts do not continue.

“We are not at all confident that we have this situation under control," Eder says. "These are fish, they do not follow orders."

Protecting the lakes from fish is not the only project under discussion in the federal budget, however. Roughly one-third of the federal money goes toward restoring shoreline, and more than 2,900 restoration projects have been completed to clear polluted water, stop toxic algae blooms, and protect native species. Steady progress is occurring, as six of the 42 highly polluted areas have been "cleaned up" since the launch of the GLRI in 2010, says Matt Doss, policy director at the Great Lakes Commission.

"That’s obviously a huge change and a huge level of progress from the decades before the GLRI, when they cleaned up one," Mr. Doss says. 

Under the GLRI's five-year plan, another 10 of the 42 "areas of concern" are slated for clean-up completion, Doss says.