Advocates for the world’s largest source of freshwater are scrambling to push back against proposed cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a project established in 2010 and funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and other government departments. According to reports out of Washington, D.C., last week, the Trump administration is proposing to cut its funding from $300 million to $10 million — an amount that would allow the EPA to do almost nothing for the Great Lakes.
“It would be disastrous if the money fell apart,” said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, a partnership of eight U.S. states plus Ontario and Quebec that works to manage cross-border issues. Still, he cautions that early reports are just that: “We’re taking these numbers very seriously, but it’s important to understand it’s not the final word. This is part of a discussion between the EPA and the White House, but Congress actually sets the budget.”
The proposed cuts wouldn’t just affect the U.S. — they’d also hurt Great Lakes communities north of the border, which have long benefited from the critical work American funding makes possible. Most important is controlling four species of invasive Asian carp, which could potentially enter Lake Michigan via Chicago and from there spread to the rest of the Great Lakes. The voracious and fast-growing fish could massively disrupt the food chain, devastating both the Canadian commercial fishery and the recreational fishery both Canada and the U.S. enjoy.
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The GLRI also funds the removal of contaminated sediment in the rivers and harbours of the Great Lakes system, and is part of ongoing efforts to reduce the flow of phosphorus into Lake Erie from farmers in Ohio’s Maumee Watershed, which contributes to algal blooms so severe that they put drinking water at risk. (In 2014, Toledo’s drinking water was contaminated with microcystin from an algal bloom, forcing half a million people to stop using their tap water.)
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There are also economics to consider. “Places like Buffalo are making a tremendous investment in their river to bring businesses back and rebuild jobs,” Eder said, noting that the proposed cuts could imperil those efforts. The GLRI is also working to restore rivers and watersheds in other cities, including Rochester and Sault Ste. Marie — work that is similarly at risk.
With shores on four of the five Great Lakes, Ontario has an obvious interest in ensuring money keeps flowing to the GLRI. Canada spends far less than the U.S. on rehabilitating the lakes — roughly $17 million a year — through the initiative. (And sometimes Canada takes credit for things that it hasn’t actually done.)
Ontario’s environment minister has said he plans to contact officials — including governors and state-level environmental department directors — on the American side of the border. “It’s very concerning to us,” Glen Murray told TVO.org on Monday at Queen’s Park. “We’ll be reaching out to our counterparts in the U.S. over the coming weeks to build a coalition for continued funding.”
Advocates for the Great Lakes, including in Ontario, do have political leverage: support for the GLRI is strong in some states that contributed to Trump’s election win last year, including Michigan and Ohio. Well before the election, and certainly since, Ontario officials have been calling to border states on a variety of different files to make the province’s interests heard.
Murray noted that the cuts hadn’t been formally proposed by the White House yet (and still haven’t been), and that the province can’t start working the phones on this issue until that happens. The White House is expected to submit its formal budget proposal to Congress on March 16, after which the house will scrutinize and revise it.
Great Lakes advocates will surely stress in their campaign to preserve GLRI funding that the money isn’t a purely American matter. It’s part of the U.S. government’s commitment to agreements signed with Canada, and with provinces and states along the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence watershed.
Eder conceded that if support from Great Lakes representatives isn’t enough, then there’s nothing in the international agreements that precludes Congress from cutting that funding.
But despite the alarm, we’ve been here before: in 2014, Republicans in the House of Representatives proposed to cut the GLRI’s funding from $300 million to $60 million. That proposal was beaten back by an Ohio Republican, Dave Joyce.
Joyce told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer last week he expects Congress to reverse any cuts proposed by the White House. While the Republican leadership, including recently appointed EPA secretary Scott Pruitt, is hostile to the agency, their work restoring the Great Lakes has substantial support even among conservatives in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
Eder said support from Republicans in the region will be key to fighting the cuts. “They’ll go to bat for it. That doesn’t mean they’ll prevail, that doesn’t mean we should be sanguine about all this,” he said. “But we know we have broad bipartisan support from members in Congress.”
Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)