Originally published by the Toledo Blade:

Northwest Ohioans know more than anyone that Lake Erie and the rivers and streams that feed Lake Erie have reached the tipping point.

This summer and early fall, toxic algae plagued Grand Lake Saint Marys, Maumee Bay, and East Harbor, sickened people and killed pets. Birds and fish were been found lying dead in the thick algae mats and washed up on shores City pumps and filters were working overtime trying to filter out the thick algae, increasing the cost of clean drinking water and potentially risking human health.

The algae problem is by no means an easy problem to solve. Open-lake disposal of nutrient rich sediments, quagga and zebra mussels, agricultural run-off, raw sewage being dumped directly into our waterways, and a toxic soup running off our urban and suburban landscapes all aggravate the nutrient problem in our waterways.

Harmful algal blooms can lay dormant for years in nutrient rich sediment at the bottom of our lakes and rivers. When the bottom sediment is dredged to maintain shipping lanes and then disposed into the shallow Maumee Bay, the harmful algal blooms are agitated, nutrients are reintroduced into the water column, and the turbidity of the mixing watery-sediment provides the perfect shelter for the harmful algal blooms. Quagga and zebra mussels are filter feeders and do not prefer the blue-green algae, the algae that northwest Ohioans have come to know all to well, further exacerbating algal blooms.

Realizing the importance of a healthy Great Lakes ecosystem to the Midwest economy, in 2008, then candidate Barack Obama made a campaign pledge to "kick-start" Great Lakes restoration by promising to fund Great Lakes restoration to the tune of $5 billion over eight years. In 2009, President Obama requested and Congress approved $475 million to restore the Great Lakes under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative provides funding for new projects to curb nutrients flowing into our waterways; slam the door on invasive species; clean-up contaminated sediment, such as the sediment that can be found in the Ottawa and Maumee rivers; and restore and protect habitat and wildlife, so that nature can filter out nutrients and harmful chemicals before they reach our waterways.

Many worthy projects received funding at the end of September and work will begin in the spring during the field/work season. As we just get started, however, Congress is debating whether or not to fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2011 or to raid it for other programs. In order to see any real change we must fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for 2011 at $475 million and pass the Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection Act. The Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection Act will make the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative a permanent program under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Great Lakes National Program Office; authorize the Great Lakes National Program Office to oversee and direct the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and re-authorize the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which provides funding to clean-up the region’s most polluted sites, at $150 million. The legislation further includes strong provisions to ensure accountability and that restoration efforts are prioritized, science-based, transparent, and focused on actions to protect and restore our Lake Erie.

To backslide on funding now will only slow progress and continue to compound the already existing problems. According to the Brookings Institute, every $1 invested in restoring the Great Lakes provides at least a $2 return and good paying, local jobs – a much needed shot in the arm for northwest Ohio’s economy and the state of Ohio.

As Congress returns to work, lawmakers should vote to make the Great Lakes a landmark, rather than an earmark, and pass the Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection Act. In addition, they should fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative at $475 million. If Congress under funds the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and continues to treat the Great Lakes as an earmark, the problems will become worse and the solutions to tackle these very pressing problems will become more expensive.

Kristy Meyer is director of agricultural and clean water programs at the Ohio Environmental Council.