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WASHINGTON – Great Lakes harbors and shipping channels could get a significant boost in federal funding thanks to a compromise water resources bill that the House approved Tuesday and that appears destined to become law.

Under the bill, the Great Lakes will be treated as a unified ecosystem that will compete with other water bodies nationwide for funding for dredging and waterway maintenance. Previously, every Great Lakes port and shipping channel had to compete individually for maintenance money, pitting them against each other in the quest for funds.

“This bill gives us significant leverage” to compete for funding to clean up Great Lakes waterways, said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who pushed for the change. “And the more leverage you have, the better.”

In addition, the bill will increase spending in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, funded by a tax charged to shippers who use ports and harbors, and will dedicate 10 percent of its funding to the Great Lakes. The legislation also boosts efforts to keep the nation’s dams safe and significantly bolsters federal efforts to fight the invasive Asian carp.

Called the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, the measure is a must-pass game plan for federal spending on water infrastructure.

The $12.3 billion measure is much smaller than the $23.3 billion bill passed in 2007 that it replaces, but it won bipartisan support for better targeting resources to the projects that need them, passing by an overwhelming 412-4 margin. The Senate is expected to pass the bill later this week.

Despite lower overall levels of funding, local lawmakers from both parties said the measure was especially beneficial to upstate New York, given its emphasis on Great Lakes programs.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., authored the sections of the bill setting aside at least 10 percent of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for the Great Lakes. She said the additional money could be used to dredge and maintain small harbors throughout the Great Lakes that have been neglected due to a lack of funding for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We need to make key investments to strengthen our local ports and harbors so we are making the most of their potential to attract businesses and support new jobs, and grow our economy,” said Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, said the increased Great Lakes funding would particularly benefit small harbors such as those in Dunkirk and Barcelona, although the entire Great Lakes navigation system will benefit as well. “By helping to improve infrastructure, we’re really helping to support jobs, United States trade and our global competitiveness,” Reed said.

In addition, the legislation includes $70 million in new funding for dam safety programs, a measure pushed by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.

“Hundreds of upstate dams are vulnerable to flooding and this legislation will accelerate emergency action plans to protect nearby communities in case of a breach,” Schumer said.

The bill also includes several provisions aimed at preventing the invasive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes and destroying the existing fishery. The bill calls for the closure of locks in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to keep the fish from spreading there and, thanks to a provision authored by Gillibrand, orders the Army Corps of Engineers to take emergency measures if necessary to stop any imminent threat from the invading fish.

“The spread of Asian carp must be stopped before permanently disturbing the natural ecosystem,” Gillibrand said.

Despite its popularity among members of both parties, the legislation drew opposition from fiscally conservative groups such as Taxpayers for Common Sense, which said the measure didn’t do enough to control wasteful spending. Adam Kolton, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation, also criticized the bill, saying: “Provisions in this bill undermine how we sort out the beneficial projects from the boondoggles.”

But House conservatives noted that the measure includes no “earmarks,” or set-asides for particular lawmakers, and that it features changes that should guarantee that the bill’s money is better spent.

The bill “includes major reforms that will increase transparency, accountability and oversight in reviewing and prioritizing future resource and development activities,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence. “Properly maintaining our nation’s ports and waterways will allow our nation to increase global trade and competitiveness, stimulating our economy and creating jobs.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com