Western New York and the Great Lakes caught a big break in Washington last week as Congress overwhelmingly agreed to a new funding formula in a compromise water resources bill.
Under the measure’s language, 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, Great Lakes ports and shipping channels were pitted against each other in the hunt for federal funding.
That is a critical change, one that will hasten the care and cleanup of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest surface freshwater system and, for decades, one of its most abused. The lakes were used as a catchall dump site, degrading their economic, recreational and ecological value. That has begun to change under President Obama’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, but the change in the water resources funding mechanism will further help in the urgent task of reclaiming this breathtaking inland sea.
The measure includes other important features, as well. It will increase spending in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, funded by a tax charged to shippers who use ports and harbors. Ten percent of its funding will be dedicated to the Great Lakes. It also includes $70 million in new funding for dam safety programs. The former measure was pushed by Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand and the latter by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, both Democrats of New York.
The legislation also includes provisions aimed at preventing the Asian carp, an invasive species, from entering the Great Lakes and destroying the fishing industry.
The $12.3 billion measure is barely half the size of the expiring 2007 version of the bill, which totaled $23.2 billion. But its structure will greatly benefit Western New York, which sits on two Great Lakes. And at least as important, the measure showed that Congress, when it wants to, can compromise on important national issues.
That, indeed, may be the big story here. It is too soon to conclude that Congress is actually functioning again, but with tea party defeats in recent Republican primaries and an occasional spirit of compromise revealing itself, it is at least possible to theorize, perhaps even to hope.
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act passed by overwhelming margins, 412-4 in the House and 91-7 in the Senate. It goes to Obama for his signature. It won broad bipartisan support for better targeting resources to the projects that need them. The bill has its detractors, but, as Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, noted, increases transparency, accountability and oversight while funding the economically necessary task of maintaining the nation’s waterways and ports.
And it showed that Congress isn’t dead yet.