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Great Lakes spending included in federal water bill

Veit Construction dredges wood waste from the bottom of Radio Tower Bay in October 2014. (file photo / News Tribune)

A bill that will fund Great Lakes cleanup efforts for another five years and help Flint., Mich., pay for an upgraded water system passed the U.S. Senate over the weekend and his headed to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.

The U.S. Senate voted 78-21 for the $12 billion Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act early Saturday following passage by the U.S. House on Wednesday. The bill, formerly known as the Water Resources Development Act, authorizes the ongoing Great Lakes Restoration Initiative for five years at $300 million each year.

The initiative helps pay for projects to clean up fish and wildlife habitat, reduce farm and city runoff, fight invasive species and clean up toxic pollution.

The program has helped fund several projects in the Northland, including efforts to remove century-old wood waste from Duluth's Radio Tower Bay on the St. Louis River estuary and to restore fish habitat and public access along the lower St. Louis River.

"This is a huge victory for the people, businesses and communities in the region," said Todd Ambs, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. "We've seen great successes from federal Great Lakes investments so far, but there is more work to do. This bill will help maintain Great Lakes restoration as a national priority."

The $300 million for the Great Lakes matches past years' funding levels and is $50 million more than originally proposed in Obama's budget.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the bill includes a provision to provide critical resources and funding to conserve fish and wildlife populations in the Great Lakes as well as allocating priority funding from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for the Great Lakes Navigation System.

"This bill supports water infrastructure projects that will boost our economy, restoration projects that will benefit our wildlife, and helps make sure that our children's drinking water is safe and free of lead," Klobuchar said in a statement Monday. "There's a lot that was good about this bill, but it wasn't perfect. I'll keep fighting to make sure we have a permanent extension of provisions to prioritize American workers when rebuilding our country's infrastructure."

It authorizes $170 million in aid for the drinking water crisis in Flint, where water from the Flint River corroded the city's pipes and contaminated the water supply with lead.

The bill also authorizes $20 million a year for fiscal years 2017 through 2021, totaling $100 million, for grants to carry out a voluntary school and child care lead testing program.

The larger bill will fund some 30 major water infrastructure projects across the U.S. and will pay to deepen significant ports.

The bill included a controversial rider that will make more water available to California agribusiness companies in areas hit hard by yearslong drought, a move that could be at the expense of salmon, conservation groups said.

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