TRAVERSE CITY (AP) - President Barack Obama, if re-elected, would continue a program that has pumped more than $1 billion into Great Lakes protection during his first term, although it's uncertain how much money will be available in the future, a spokeswoman said Thursday.
Carol Browner, the president's former energy and climate adviser and a previous Environmental Protection Agency chief, also said a second Obama administration would push ahead with efforts to prevent Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes.
But she said it was too early to take a position on placing barriers in Chicago-area waterways to block the carp's path to Lake Michigan, a step favored by most states in the Great Lakes region but opposed by Illinois and local business groups.
"The president does take his responsibilities toward the Great Lakes very seriously," Browner said during a candidates' forum that wrapped up the annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Cleveland. More than 600 environmental activists, business leaders and government officials were registered to Republican challenger Mitt Romney's campaign did not send a representative to the forum, although organizers said earlier this week that both sides had been invited and would take part. Spokesman Christopher Maloney said in an email that scheduling conflicts prevented the Romney campaign from participating. He said Romney would continue "restoration efforts" if elected but offered no details.
Obama's administration kicked off the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2009 to deal with longstanding problems that scientists say are causing ecological damage and harming the region's economy. The lakes make up 95 percent of the nation's surface freshwater and supply more than 30 million people with drinking water.
Congress has approved Obama's requests totaling more than $1 billion for the program. It has funded hundreds of projects to fight invasive species, restore wildlife habitat, clean up toxic hot spots and prevent runoff that causes harmful algae blooms. But supporters say more is needed.
Obama has pledged to fund the initiative at least through 2014, and presidential counselor Pete Rouse said in February the administration was "interested in continuing" it even longer.
"The president has a very strong record and I think it is very fair to assume he will continue this commitment, he will continue to build on it," Browner said Thursday. But with the prospect of deep across-the-board cuts if Congress and the president don't strike a deficit reduction deal after the election, it's premature to promise a specific amount of money, she said.
Browner said Obama is awaiting results of an Army Corps of Engineers study before deciding whether to support severing a century-old, man-made connection between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds at Chicago. The administration has promised a report by the end of 2013.
"It wouldn't be appropriate for anybody to prejudge the outcome," Browner said.
Maloney, the Romney spokesman, said the Obama administration is moving too slowly.
"As president, Governor Romney will accelerate the Army Corps process and ensure that they develop a plan as soon as possible to protect both the ecology and economy of the region," he said.
Five states - Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania - are suing the federal government to separate the two water systems. A study this year by groups representing the region's states and cities proposed several methods of doing so, with costs ranging up to $9.5 billion.
Opponents say separation would disrupt shipping and boost flooding in the Chicago area.