Commentary: Under Trump budget, Great Lakes projects may sink
Has President Donald Trump drifted off-course in Great Lakes politics?
The question comes from the news that Trump plans to slash Great Lakes improvement funding by 97 percent. According to a budget document obtained by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, the president proposes to slash funding for the enormously popular Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to $10 million (from $300 million) next year.
The initiative has poured more than $2 billion into the Great Lakes economy and environment during the last eight years, thanks to extraordinary bipartisan support in an extremely partisan era. The program has funded 3,400 projects targeting everything from the control of invasive Asian carp to the cleanup of heavily polluted hot spots.
Throughout the Great Lakes region, Trump's sobering budget news was met with blanched reactions of denial, gallows humor and rage. But the more appropriate reaction might be, "Is Trump really going to gore a sacred ox in the electoral region that put him in office?"
The sapphire waters of the Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the earth's fresh surface water. The national media incessantly refers to the region as the "Rust Belt," but in fact it is an economic powerhouse. While there are clearly pockets of serious economic decline, according to a 2016 study by the Conference of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, the eight Great Lakes states, combined with Ontario and Quebec, make up the third-largest economy in the world, $5.8 trillion.
During the middle of the last century, however, as the regional economy surged, large swaths of the Great Lakes' environment were severely scarred, thanks to unsustainable industrial practices, pathetic sewage management and paltry environmental rules. This was particularly true in the more heavily populated "lower lakes" such as Erie, Ontario and southern Lake Michigan. The Cuyahoga River famously caught fire, and Lake Erie was considered by many to be biologically dead. Those ecological tragedies led to the Clean Water Act and other policies that slowly but methodically helped the Great Lakes begin to recover.
But sometimes methodical is not enough. In a 2004 executive order, President George W. Bush proclaimed the Great Lakes a "national treasure" and helped create the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, which built a broad coalition of bipartisan support for more cleanup. Riding Bush's momentum, President Barack Obama launched the restoration initiative in 2009, budgeting $475 million in restoration funding that year. During the next seven years, its annual budget hovered around $300 million.
More than once during that period the Republican-led House boosted President Obama's annual Great Lakes restoration budget allocation by tens of millions. Why? The program is as popular with the camo-clad hook-and-bullet guys as it is with the granola crowd. The Council of Great Lakes Industries is an enthusiastic supporter as well. The restoration initiative's popularity emanates from thousands of projects that produced tangible ecological results — including the cleanup and delisting of toxic "areas of concern" in presidential battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Those results prompted a salient question for Great Lakes officials at a water summit last fall: What will the next president do?
The top conclusion from that summit? The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is a highly successful nonpartisan program that should be continued, in part because a Brookings Institution report showed that every restoration dollar invested created approximately two dollars in economic return.
The second key summit conclusion? The federal budget authorization for the restoration initiative should be expanded to five years and set at a level of $300 million per year, which is exactly what Congress did during its post-election lame duck session.
Now comes the news that Trump plans to eviscerate one of the region's most cherished bipartisan programs. The Great Lakes states are home to 85 million people, including the voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who delivered him the 46 crucial Electoral College votes that propelled him to victory.
The Great Lakes congressional delegation faces a critical early test from the new president. The annual Great Lakes Day lobbying fest arrives Tuesday on Capitol Hill, and preserving the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative may be the most important challenge the region's advocates have faced in decades.
Peter Annin is the author of "The Great Lakes Water Wars" and co-directs the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wis.
Copyright © 2017, Chicago Tribune This is the online version of this article which appeared in print on March 14, 2017, in the News section of the Chicago Tribune with the headline "Great Lakes projects may sink under Trump budget"