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Great Lakes Cleanup: Obama Seeks $300 Million

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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — A Great Lakes fix-up plan designed to ward off species invasions, cleanse polluted harbors and make other environmental repairs would get $300 million under the budget President Barack Obama released Monday.

The amount is down from the $475 million Congress appropriated for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative last year at Obama's request. Administration officials said the drop-off for the 2011 fiscal year is reasonable, with federal agencies under pressure to cut costs.

It "reflects the difficult economic times while recognizing the president's continued commitment to restoring and protecting this vital environmental and economic treasure," the Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement.

EPA chief Lisa Jackson described the $300 million request as "robust" in a call with reporters, noting that much of the money from last year's appropriation had yet to be spent.

The deadline recently passed to apply for $120 million in restoration project grants under the 2010 budget. EPA has received more than 1,000 requests from states, Indian tribes, cities, universities and advocacy groups and will award the money in May, a spokeswoman said.

The restoration initiative is based on a wide-ranging Great Lakes cleanup wish list crafted by government officials, scientists and advocates from across the region in 2005.

It calls for eventually spending more than $20 billion for measures such as slamming the door on exotic species, removing sediments laced with toxins, improving wildlife habitat and reducing runoff of pollutants that cause algae blooms and oxygen-deprived "dead zones."

Environmental activists complained that Obama was not keeping pace with his campaign pledge to pump $5 billion into the restoration during his term, but acknowledged he was seeking more for the lakes than any of his predecessors.

The $300 million was "not the amount of funding we had hoped for" but represents a step forward, said Jeff Skelding, campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

"The level of funding that the president committed indicates that he understands the plight of the Great Lakes and the urgency to do something about it," Skelding said.

The Great Lakes Commission, an agency representing the region's eight states, will ask Congress to duplicate last year's $475 million appropriation but realizes it may be a tough sell, said Tim Eder, executive director.

"We're certainly better off than we were, but we have to recognize that the need is still much greater," he said.

Obama's request doesn't include additional money the region will get under a separate loan program for upgrading sewage treatment infrastructure. That's a top priority under the restoration initiative, which identified overflows from aging wastewater systems in large cities such as Detroit and Cleveland as a leading pollution source.

EPA said money in this year's budget was being diverted to another urgent Great Lakes need: the fight against the Asian carp that are threatening to invade Lake Michigan from waterways near Chicago. Scientists say the plankton-gobbling fish could disrupt the aquatic food chain and starve out popular sport varieties such as salmon and walleye.

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