Environmental groups are considering a major push to wring cash for ecosystem restorations from global warming legislation.
Leaders of more than 30 advocacy groups are working on creating what is being called "America's Great Waters Coalition." Among the players: the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Ducks Unlimited and regional groups from the Chesapeake Bay to the Everglades to Puget Sound.
"We feel like this is a huge opportunity to be able to capitalize on the climate bill, to tell the story of why restoration is so important as we start adapting to a changing climate," said Malia Hale, director of restoration and water campaigns for the National Wildlife Federation, which is spearheading the effort.
Both the House-passed climate bill and the Senate draft would dedicate some revenue from a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions to a natural resources "adaptation" fund. In the House bill, that fund could grow to $4 billion a year by 2027. Senate bill sponsors have not yet proposed numbers.
Aquatic programs could get $340 million annually over 19 years in the House bill, funneled through various federal and state agencies, according to a National Wildlife Federation analysis.
While the House fund would not approach the $200 billion that environmentalists say is needed to keep ecosystem restorations going over the life of the legislation, the idea of establishing the fund is more important to advocates than the amount of money in it.
"They've never had a dedicated fund before," said Bill Leary, a former natural resources policy adviser for the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "The amount of money in the bill is modest compared to the need, but nonetheless it is very important to establish dedicated funding, because it opens up that possibility."
The coalition is also aimed at allowing restoration advocates to fight together instead of against each other. They have traditionally resisted joining forces, loath to deflect attention from their individual causes.
"When your ecosystem is hot, why do you need other people to help you?" Hale asked. "But the reality is, over time, these areas have noticed that these are 30- to 50-year restoration programs. You're not going to be hot 30 to 50 years straight."
Teaming up is good politics, said Julian Zelizer, Princeton University professor of history and public affairs.
"Whenever you can unite blocs of interest groups or senators across regional lines, you increase your chances -- especially in a moment like this when the legislative agenda is pretty tight and there's not a lot of room for more demand," Zelizer said. "It's a kind of simple game, in one way. You're trying to get as many legislators to say 'yes' as possible. And when you do, they become a voting bloc."
The 10 largest water ecosystem restoration projects span 27 of the lower 48 states and involve nearly half of the country's population.
"You can imagine what the 'congressional large ecosystem caucus' would look like, if one existed," Leary said.
The logic has convinced some Great Lakes advocates, even though the lakes are currently enjoying a shower of money and attention from the Obama administration and Congress.
Jeff Skelding, national campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said talk at a Great Lakes summit in September centered on why uniting with other groups would add power to their ecosystem's cause.
"One of the answers is politics," Skelding said. "Politics change. Leadership changes. You can be hot today and cold tomorrow. The HOW coalition members understood that."
The time is ripe for such an effort, Leary said, because the Obama administration has signaled that restoration efforts are a priority. The president has appointed special policy advisers for both the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay cleanups and has ordered a rewrite of 26-year-old federal standards for water projects to include environmental goals (Greenwire, July 14).
"There's a new attitude ... about the large ecosystem efforts," Leary said.
Skelding maintains there is little time to waste for putting restoration efforts in gear.
"We can't keep going in the direction we're going, because very soon we may be facing irreversible impacts," Skelding said. "Places like the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Maine and the Everglades ... have brought together a wide array of the major stakeholders and have put together plans to get the job done. What they need now is funding."
Skelding said the great water bodies coalition is on track for a formal launch next month, with participants working to craft a message that will portray healthy ecosystems as regional economic engines. Such an argument was critical in the 1990s for winning federal and state backing for a massive restoration program for the Everglades.
"In a lot of ways, we have to get past arguing for ecosystem protection for the sake of ecosystem protection only," Skelding said. "We need to couple that with a message that's loud and clear that we're also talking about economic revitalization at the same time."
Skelding cited a 2007 Brookings Institution study that found the Great Lakes region would reap a $50 billion long-term benefit from a $20 billion restoration effort.
Including fisheries in a federal push for restoration funding would allow the coalition to make a play for a wider array of funds, Leary said.
"You can think about restoration in terms of things like stimulus money and economic value to the region, which is a discussion that has not really been occurring," Leary said.
Skelding said that while the coalition sees the climate bill as an immediate target, the group is eyeing other measures, as well.
The coalition is also pushing for the federal surface transportation reauthorization bill to include measures to curb highway water runoff, a major source of the pollution that is crippling bodies like the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.
And Hale said advocates will continue to push for more annual funding for revolving funds for drinking water and wastewater treatment.
"There's a political reality as to how you go about getting to the end line here," Skelding said. "It will be a step-by-step process, and we will seize every opportunity and begin to seize any kind of funding when we see it."