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Obama, Romney campaigns to outline policies on Great Lakes protections

By John Flesher
Associated Press

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Representatives of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are scheduled to outline their policies on Great Lakes protection during a conference this week.

Both campaigns have been invited to the annual meeting of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition on Thursday in Cleveland, where activists will seek commitments to continue a billion-dollar restoration initiative started by the Obama administration.

They also want a promise to support placing barriers in Chicago-area waterways to prevent Asian carp and other species from reaching the lakes — a controversial step that neither campaign has endorsed.

“The millions of people who depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, jobs and way of life deserve to know where President Obama and Gov. Romney stand on restoring the largest source of fresh water in the world,” said Jeff Skelding, director of the Healing Our Waters coalition, which represents about 120 advocacy groups and other organizations.

Carol Browner, Obama’s former energy and climate adviser, will speak for his campaign. The Romney team had not identified its representative, coalition leaders said.

During his 2004 re-election campaign, former President George W. Bush signed an order establishing a multi-agency collaboration that produced a $20 billion plan for dealing with the freshwater seas’ biggest ecological problems, including sewer overflows, invasive species, shrinking wildlife habitat and contaminated harbors.

Bush’s administration provided little money for the program. When campaigning in 2008, Obama called for spending about $500 million a year over a decade. After meeting the goal in 2009, the administration has sought lesser amounts because of tight budgets. Still, Congress has approved more than $1 billion and Obama has requested another $300 million for this year.

Supporters are seeking pledges from both campaigns to keep the program going, given the soaring deficit and weak economy.

“Cutting funding and failing to address the Asian carp crisis will make projects more difficult and expensive the longer we wait,” Skelding said.

Paul Isley, chairman of the economics department at Grand Valley State University, said neither candidate might be able to fulfill pledges unless a deal is reached that prevents across-the-board cuts from taking effect early next year.

“The No. 1 thing to watch for is what they’re going to do to avoid the fiscal cliff,” Isley said. “The choices they make in dealing with that are going to be very important.”

The Healing Our Waters coalition has joined the Great Lakes Commission and a group representing the region’s mayors in calling for construction of Chicago-area barriers that would sever a century-old link between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River drainage basin.

They say the project, which would cost billions and take many years to complete, is the only way to shield the lakes from Asian carp and other invaders. Illinois officials and business interests say it would be economically devastating and cause flooding in Chicago.

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