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Over the Cliff: Not a Happy New Year for Illinois' Environment

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Past the cliff comes what, the abyss?

Wherever the metaphors and rhetoric are headed as the stalemate in Congress continues, here in the real world the stakes are high for our health and the quality of our land, air and water.

We probably won't notice a change in the first days or couple weeks after going over the "cliff," but make no mistake about it: the air we breathe, the water we drink and the progress we've made in cleaning up both are at risk as the crisis plays out. Let's take a look at a few of the potential impacts.

A Halt to Healing the Great Lakes?
Lake Michigan provides drinking water for over half of Illinois' residents, and together the Great Lakes contain one fifth of the fresh water on the planet. In recent years, we have begun to turn the corner on some of the lakes' most persistent pollution problems thanks to the Clean Water Act and investments in sewage treatment. President Obama's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has provided over a billion dollars in new funding to clean up toxic waste sites around the lakes, like Waukegan Harbor, and protect the habitats that are crucial their health.

Mandatory cuts would create strong pressure to reduce or stop this important work in progress. It would also end up costing us all more in the long run.

"Cutting funding to essential clean water programs will not save the nation one penny," according to Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of Alliance for the Great Lakes. "In fact, cutting these programs will only make projects harder and more expensive the longer we wait. At a time when lawmakers need to make smart budget choices, Great Lakes restoration offers one of the best returns on the dollar in the federal budget. It's a winner for the environment and the economy."

Hitting Pause on Pollution Control?
We all count on the scientists and other professionals at the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce our environmental laws and crack down on scofflaws who would jeopardize our health by cutting corners on pollution controls. EPA is now planning for how to accommodate deep, immediate cuts that would put many of these public servants off the job. This would not only snarl enforcement efforts but increase the strain on their state partners, such as Illinois EPA, who count on federal support in managing with their own severe resource constraints.

Standing Down From Stopping Asian Carp?
Since invasive Asian Carp were discovered within miles of Lake Michigan in 2009, the Obama Administration has marshaled an unprecedented effort to keep the aquatic invaders out in the short term and plan for a permanent solution at the same time. The cliff cuts would likely be a double-whammy for these efforts, as the US Army Corps of Engineers will be cut as part of mandatory defense spending reductions, and non-defense cuts will impact the federal biologists and Illinois Department of Natural Resources and their intensive efforts. To date, they've been able to keep the carp out of the lake, but for how long, once the rug has been pulled out from under them?

Lost Opportunities to Save our Last Wild Places

Illinois scored a big win for future generations this year when the US Fish and Wildlife Service established the Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge in McHenry County and southern Wisconsin -- the first Refuge in the Chicago region. This was an historic accomplishment, but it was really the first step toward making this wonderful asset a reality. Now the Service is working with local partners to plan the land acquisition to transform the Refuge from a place on the map to a place we can experience the great outdoors. Without the capacity to preserve these lands now, some will undoubtedly increase in price, and perhaps be lost forever to development rather than be a part of the Refuge our children can experience in the future. We also count on the Fish and Wildlife Service to manage and restore 10 other Refuges in Illinois,just as we count on the Forest Service to protect our Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie and the Shawnee National Forest.

Cuts To Clean Water
Illinois is making major headway against some of our more stubborn water pollution problems. A coordinated effort to restore the Illinois River is resulting in cleaner water, plans are in place to clean up suburban waters like the Fox and DuPage watersheds, and the Chicago River system is on the verge of a major recovery now that major wastewater treatment upgrades are planned. All of this will take investment, of course, and Governor Pat Quinn recently launched the Illinois Clean Water Initiative to help make these investments. However, federal support has always been an important part of clean water infrastructure investment, and Illinois is counting on that support to implement these plans. Federal grants support state programs to loan the dollars needed by cities and wastewater agencies to make these improvements, at better rates and terms than private lenders would offer. This gives us clean water, and lower property tax bills to boot. Mandatory federal cuts would surely fall hard on support for these state clean water funds, and delay or cancel these plans to revitalize the waters that make up the heart of so many Illinois communities.

In addition to the direct budget cuts, the deadlock in Congress also jeopardizes the tremendous growth in the Illinois clean energy industry. Illinois has seen almost 20,000 jobs created in wind power alone in the last five years, due mostly to new state clean energy targets and a key federal tax incentive. That federal tax incentive is now expiring, with no apparent consensus among Republicans to keep the economic and environmental benefits from wind power coming online.

Clearly this is not a good way to start the New Year. If there is a silver lining to this mess, however, it could be that if forces all of us to think about how much we depend on these programs and investments to protect our health and our environment for future generations. Let's hope that it also starts to matter to the members of Congress who can lead us out of the abyss, but so far seem to prefer protecting tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The air we breathe and the water we drink matters to each and every one of us, no matter what your tax bracket.