- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - Business, environment and government organizations asked the presidential candidates Wednesday to pledge support for Great Lakes cleanup efforts, including an Obama administration program that has pumped more than $2.2 billion into the region for initiatives such as battling invasive Asian carp and preventing toxic algae outbreaks.

The groups, which represent interests that sometimes clash, said they would not collectively endorse a candidate. But they agreed on top priorities for federal action to protect and restore the five inland seas that provide drinking water to more than 40 million residents of the U.S. and Canada and support industries as varied as manufacturing, tourism and agriculture.

They hoped to win commitments from candidates in both parties as the campaign shifts to the Upper Midwest and Northeast, including the eight states that adjoin the Great Lakes. Primary elections are scheduled for Michigan, Ohio and Illinois this month, followed by Wisconsin, New York and Pennsylvania in April and Indiana in May. Minnesota’s caucuses were held Tuesday.

“We need the next president to keep federal restoration efforts on track,” said Todd Ambs, campaign director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which represents environmental and recreation groups. “The nation cannot afford to stop protecting the Great Lakes.”

Their wish list includes continuing to spend about $300 million annually on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which President Barack Obama established after taking office in 2009. It has funded nearly 3,000 grants for projects in four areas: fighting invasive species, removing toxic pollutants, protecting wildlife habitat and preventing runoff from farms and cities that feeds harmful algae blooms.

Obama has proposed cutting the program in recent years in the push to reduce the budget deficit. But Congress has kept the allocation at $300 million with bipartisan support from the region’s congressional delegation.

Additionally, the groups called for supporting agreements between the U.S., Canada, Michigan and Ohio to seek a 40 percent reduction in nutrient pollution blamed for Lake Erie’s persistent harmful algae that caused a two-day drinking water shutdown in 2014 in Toledo and southeastern Michigan.

They also requested a commitment to upgrade drinking water and sewage treatment infrastructure, an issue that has gained political traction in the region with the crisis in Flint, Michigan. Lead from aging pipes has polluted tap water in the city of nearly 100,000.

Environmentalists have sought similar pledges of support for Great Lakes programs from presidential hopefuls in recent elections. This year, they were joined by two business groups representing chambers of commerce and large companies such as Dow Chemical Co. and DTE Energy.

Reflecting their presence, the region’s platform included a call to improve locks, ports, harbors and other infrastructure crucial for commercial shipping.

The lakes are “the defining asset of a great trading region that, if it were a country, would be the third-largest economy in the world with output in the range of $6 trillion,” said Ed Wolking, executive director of the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition.

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Follow John Flesher on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JohnFlesher

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