Schumer calls for Great Lakes funding

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Yesterday, for the first time this summer, Ontario beach was closed to swimming. That's fitting, considering that Senator Chuck Schumer was in town to talk about funding for programs to improve water quality in the Great Lakes.

As Schumer stood at a podium in front of the mostly empty beach, he said that Ontario and Durand-Eastman beaches are closed to swimming for 30 percent to 50 percent of each summer. He said the closings are due to poor water quality, often including elevated bacteria levels.

"That's wrong, and we shouldn't just say 'that's life' and we should live with it," he said.

Ontario and Durand-Eastman beaches are located within the federal Rochester Embayment Area of Concern, a section of Lake Ontario between Riga and Webster. The lake in that area suffers from pollution and water quality issues that must be addressed before the designation can be changed.

Schumer began his press conference by calling on Congress to pass legislation to restore $9.9 million for the BEACH Act, which provides communities with funding to monitor water quality at public beaches. The funding has been "zeroed out" for 2014, he said.

But testing the water only alerts the public to water quality problems -- it doesn't solve the root causes. Several years ago, Congress passed the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which committed to substantial, sustained funding for Great Lakes water quality projects. Those projects can include -- and have included -- everything from wetlands restoration and upgrades to storm water infrastructure to programs aimed at decreasing nutrient runoff from farmers fields.

Congress fully funded the program at $475 million the first year. The program was supposed to receive $300 million each year after, but some Congress members forced cuts. This year, the sequester also took a bit out of the funding. In April, a bipartisan group of Great Lakes House members, including Representatives Louise Slaughter and Chris Collins, wrote to the chair and ranking member of an appropriations committee to request $300 million for the GLRI.

Yesterday, Schumer said he's sponsoring legislation that would fund the program at $475 million a year. There are far more projects than there is funding, he said. He also pushed for Congress to pass another bill he's sponsoring: the Great Lakes Ecological and Economic Protection Act of 2013. That legislation would direct funding to Great Lakes areas of concern for various projects, such as removal of polluted sediment.

In an e-mail, a spokesperson for Slaughter said that she and other sponsors would introduce companion legislation in the House.

At the press conference, Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks said that the county has struggled with beach water quality for years and that, in at least some cases, officials have identified solutions. The county lacks the resources, however, to implement the solution, she said. Brooks said that funding for comprehensive plans and approaches is needed and she backed Schumer's proposals.

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