By Claudia Broman
Michele Wheeler, the executive director of the Bad River Watershed Association, traveled out east this week to participate in Washington, D.C.'s annual Great Lakes Day.
“I'd never done this before, but it's something I believe in,” Wheeler said Wednesday night, speaking from her hotel after a full day of meetings with federal legislators. “I'm exhausted.”
Wheeler had a full day of briefings on Tuesday as a member of the Wisconsin delegation representing the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. The coalition is a consortium of non-profit groups that advocate for the Great Lakes.
Wednesday was the day for those participating in Great Lakes Day to meet with legislators and staff members.
Wheeler met with U.S. Senators, U.S. House Representatives, and legislative staff members from Wisconsin for 15 minute stints throughout the day. Those with whom she met included 3rd District Congressman Ron Kind (D-La Crosse), 7th District Congressman Sean Duffy (R-Ashland), and Senator Ron Johnson (R-Oshkosh).
A topic of discussion with congressional freshmen was the importance of continuing leadership on Great Lakes issues, Wheeler said.
What is so important about the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Wheeler explained, is how it is a bipartisan effort.
“It reflects the general public's support of the issue,” Wheeler said.
Preventative investment in the Great Lakes is socially-responsible, she said, as whatever solutions or tactics are used for cleaning up problems later on will cost more than prevention – as in Asian carp. The Army Corps of Engineers is planning to tackle a five-year-long study to examine invasive species and waterways around Lake Michigan where Asian carp could potentially enter the Great Lakes. But five years is too long, Wheeler said.
“Our appeal to Congress was to do it in 18 months, instead,” she said.
For Asian carp to enter and alter the Great Lakes would change the ecosystem forever, Wheeler said.
This focus on prevention and quick study, rather than lengthy study and subsequent long-term effects seemed to be a concept that the legislators with whom Wheeler met understood and could get behind, she said.
“I was really impressed with the staffers, especially those of the freshmen congressmen,” Wheeler said, pointing out how the congressional staff members tended to show great interest in getting up to speed on the Great Lakes issues.
Wheeler said that the U.S. House has already passed a continuing resolution approving $225 million in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding, though the U.S. Senate has an opportunity to set that figure back to $300 million for 2011. In 2012, a White House proposal shows funding for the initiative at $350 million.
“We'd like to see it at $475 million again,” Wheeler said, in addition to seeing the initiative itself included as a regular line item in the federal budget.
Wheeler also spoke to how the structure of the initiative allows for federal filtering of grant monies and funding to local partners, “which sets up the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for success,” she said. “We know what the issues are and we know how to deal with them.”
The Bad River Watershed Association obtained initiative funding to replace culverts in the Bad River Watershed and prevent excessive sediment from flowing into Lake Superior due to failing road crossings over streams. These projects have also helped to address the ease with which fish can pass through culverts and access spawning areas, Wheeler said.
Another local group, the Chequamegon Bay Area Partnership, received a number of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants, as well, for Lake Superior watershed-related projects.
“We put in a lot of energy locally, and a lot of time, to make sure we're not competing with each other,” Wheeler said, emphasizing how these local grant projects focus on collaboration and non-duplication of effort.
Wheeler emphasized that a little foresight now on the part of federal leaders can truly help to protect the Great Lakes.
“My time away is not easy,” Wheeler said. “But I believe this is a responsible thing to do. By spending this money now we are going to save money later.”