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Preserving the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Will Congress continue to block Trump’s plans to endanger our environment?

May. 16, 2017
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The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) is not exactly controversial. Based on a plan laid out by the George W. Bush administration, the federal program was launched in 2010 and maintained through both of Barack Obama’s terms. During that time, it has funded thousands of projects countering habitat destruction, polluted runoff, invasive species and other urgent threats. And in spite of the political rancor that prevailed during those years, it’s enjoyed strong bipartisan support throughout.

So on March 16, when the Trump administration released its “America First” budget blueprint recommending the elimination of GLRI funding among other massive cuts, opposition came swiftly from both sides of the aisle.  

A group of 63 Democrats and Republicans from the House of Representatives sent a letter to the House appropriations leaders, requesting that they to continue allocating the annual $300 million for GLRI funding in 2018. Tammy Baldwin, a member of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, sent a letter to Scott Walker asking how he planned to make up for a loss of federal support. For his part, Walker told the Associated Press, “It makes sense for us to continue to make prudent investments in protecting and improving the Great Lakes.”

Those appalled by Trump’s plan got some comfort on April 30 when Congress, averting a shutdown, agreed on a spending package for fiscal year 2017 that preserved GLRI funding through September. Todd Ambs, Campaign Director for Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, says this came as “very good news.” 

“It enables us to keep the Great Lakes efforts on track, and certainly sends a strong signal that protecting drinking water for 30 million people in the region appears to still be a long-term national priority,” Ambs says. “But there’s obviously a lot more work to be done.”

With the 2017 spending bill in place, the initiative’s broad base of supporters now has a few months to make sure Congress continues to recognize the value of the Great Lakes, both as a local resource and a national necessity.


Environmental and Economic Impact 

Since it first went into effect, the GLRI has dedicated $2.2 billion to restoration efforts in the region. Of that, $331 million has gone to Wisconsin, funding a total of 416 projects statewide. In the Milwaukee area, that has included cleaning up the Milwaukee Estuary (a designated Area of Concern), and supporting stream restoration and water quality monitoring by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. 

As celebrated as such green initiatives are, not everyone agrees they should take precedence over other pressing concerns when funds are limited. But while the economy and the environment are often pitted against one another in budgetary and policy disputes, Great Lakes restoration benefits both.  

“We recognize the importance of the lake both economically and aesthetically,” says Steve Baas, Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, which is a member of the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition. “We look at the restoration initiative as a way to enhance one of our unique amenities both economically and in terms of a sense of place.”

Wisconsin’s commercial future is inextricably tied to the health of the lakes that border it. In addition to providing drinking water, they encourage development, draw tourists and create jobs. The GLRI’s restoration strategy could generate as much as $2.3 billion in increased property values in the Milwaukee metro area alone, according to a study from the Brookings Institution. “It’s hard to do economic development in a toxic sediment area,” says Ezra Meyer, Water Resources Specialist for Clean Wisconsin. “But once you clean those things up you lay the table for other positive economic activities to follow.” 

Milwaukee’s manufacturing is also largely dependent on water, motivating local companies to advocate for Great Lakes restoration. In 2013, Lakefront Brewery joined the National Resources Defense Council’s “Brewers for Clean Water” campaign, which has engaged dozens of breweries in the long-term protection of their main ingredient. 

“If we don’t have clean water, it affects jobs. It affects manufacturing. We really need clean water to do our work,” says Chris Ranson, Director of Tourism and Environmental Programs for Lakefront. Dirty water requires more chemicals and processing to be prepared for consumption, and the quality of beer depends on the quality of the water it was brewed with. Ranson notes that brewers also depend on the water for cleaning. Furthermore, Lakefront is located right on the Milwaukee River, making it one of the city’s many waterfront businesses that count on clean rivers and lakes to attract customers when the weather is nice.  


A National Resource 

Trump’s budget blueprint states that it “returns the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to State and local entities, allowing EPA to focus on its highest national priorities.” This language suggests 1) that the GLRI is not a high national priority, and 2) that State and local governments are capable of funding it adequately without federal help. Many GLRI supporters would disagree on both counts. 

The Great Lakes contain more than 90% of America’s fresh surface water. If the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence region were its own country, it would be the third largest economy in the world. “These resources exist in a local area, but they are of national importance,” Meyer says. “That’s why the federal funding for doing something to fix them has always made so much common sense.”

In her letter to Walker, Baldwin wrote “Wisconsin has received millions in federal investments from this federal program and local governments simply do not have the resources to replace this funding.”

Echoing this assertion, Ambs points to how the pace of toxic hot spot cleanup has accelerated since the GLRI went into effect. He also notes that some of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ staff positions are entirely funded by grants from the EPA.

“Those staff disappear if funding is not maintained,” Ambs says. “There’s just no way that you’re going to be able to address these things without the federal government. And why should we? What priorities are greater than the most significant surface freshwater resources on the planet?”


Looking to 2018 

The proposed cuts don’t seem to be a judgment on the GLRI itself. Rather, Trump’s so-called “skinny budget” paints the new administration’s priorities—slashing domestic spending, limiting federal involvement, pumping up defense—in the broadest of brush strokes, leaving many popular programs in doubt. “I think they wanted to make a big splash and show they were cutting all this stuff. And all kinds of babies got thrown out with all kinds of bath water.” Meyer says. 

Like many other initiatives slashed by the skinny budget, the GLRI’s future ahead of the Sept. 30 deadline remains unclear. On this front, Baas views the proposed cuts not as a threat so much as an opportunity for the GLRI to prove its worth. 

“When you’re spending taxpayer money on a program, it’s not a bad thing for the program to have to justify its value proposition,” Baas says. “Fortunately for those of us who are fans of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, I think it’s one of the programs that can make a compelling case.”

A statement from the press office of Jim Sensenbrenner, who supports the GLRI, stated “Due to its strong bipartisan support and the fact that it has been consistently funded since its inception in 2010, Congressman Sensenbrenner is optimistic that it will receive the funding necessary in [fiscal year] 2018.”

Many advocates are not taking anything for granted, however. Instead, they are attending town halls, planning awareness campaigns and sending advocates to Capitol Hill. In doing so, they hope to present a united front that is not limited to any one region, industry or political party. “As far as we can tell, the only person in the United States that’s opposed to Great Lakes restoration is in the White House,” Ambs says. “So we’ll continue making our case and hope to prevail in next year’s budget.”


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