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Great Lakes Restoration Could Survive Trump Era

Strong bipartisan support for cleaning up the region

Dec. 27, 2016
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Photo credit: Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Although President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican Congress are threatening to slash funding for vital programs—or terminate some altogether—there’s one initiative that may survive thanks to its broad bipartisan support.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), launched during the George W. Bush administration and funded and supported throughout the Barack Obama years, is a multibillion-dollar program that’s credited with cleaning up our waterways and restoring endangered wetlands.

In Wisconsin, the GLRI has provided $195 million for 281 projects through fiscal year 2015, according to the Great Lakes Commission.

You’ll see its impact on projects ranging from the large-scale cleanup of the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers and Bradford Beach to the nurturing of the natural habitat at the Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum at the Urban Ecology Center. The arboretum project received $953,450 in GLRI funding to supplement its state and private contributions.

The work will likely continue, thanks to the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which the Senate passed on Dec. 10 and has been signed by Obama. The bill authorizes $1.5 billion over five years for Great Lakes restoration projects, as well as provided $170 million for Flint, Mich., to replace its lead pipes.

“In an era when people are justifiably worried about what the federal government is going to do to us, the Restoration Initiative is a shining example of what the federal government can do for us,” said Todd Ambs, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

The $1.5 billion going forward, which provides $300 million annually over five years for Great Lakes projects, complements the $2.2 billion already distributed during the Obama years. In the past, Obama has included funding for the initiative in each of his budgets, so the money for the GLRI was discretionary. Now, however, Congress approved making the GLRI a line item in the federal budget with $300 million annually attached to it for five years.

That said, the funding for GLRI could still be vulnerable. Ambs warned that Congress could fail to appropriate the $300 million annually, but keep the program in the budget. He said Wisconsin’s congressional delegation is supportive, including tea party Sen. Ron Johnson and his fellow Republicans throughout the region, helping to ensure GLRI’s continued success at budget time.

“There aren’t a lot of issues that you’ll find Gwen Moore and Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble and Mark Pocan all on the same page, but this is one of those,” Ambs said.

Another reason for hope is that the Trump campaign signaled that it supports the GLRI, although the president-elect hasn’t committed to a level of funding. Add to it the program’s strong support from members of Congress from both parties and it’s likely that the work begun during the Obama years will continue for at least the next five years.

‘A Godsend’

Ambs said the initiative has had such strong support because of the recognition that the Great Lakes supplies the drinking water for 35 million people in the U.S. and Canada. The initiative targeted five key problems: combatting invasive species such as Asian carp, cleaning up contaminated sediments, controlling polluted runoff and cleaning up beaches, restoring wetlands, and protecting fish and wildlife habitat.

Ambs said the GLRI was able to jumpstart projects that had been needed, but not funded, for years. In fact, the impaired Wisconsin rivers that the initiative targeted had needed to be cleaned up for decades.

“In some cases the plan was ready and had been ready for the past 30 years to do the work that’s necessary to clean up the contaminated sediment,” Ambs said. “It was just lacking the money.”

There’s an economic connection as well.

A 2007 Brookings Institute study found that a $26 billion investment in the Great Lakes would turn into at least a $50 billion long-term economic boost. In the Milwaukee metro region alone, the increased property values resulting from GLRI projects are estimated to be worth up to $2.3 billion, according to the institute’s 2008 analysis.

“I think it’s a huge boon for the economic vitality for the Great Lakes region to keep the GLRI funded,” said Keven Shafer, executive director of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD), which has received GLRI funds for some of its work. “A good economy builds on a clean environment.”

Shafer said the concrete removal from the Menomonee River near MillerCoors was mostly funded by the GLRI. In the future, concrete removal projects in the KK River and Underwood Creek could benefit from GLRI funds. As well, Shafer said that a planned project to restore wetlands over the Burnham Canal in Walker’s Point, now a Superfund site, could be a candidate for GLRI funds in the future.

“The GLRI has had a phenomenally positive impact for the Milwaukee region,” Shafer said. “We’re seeing concrete removed from our waterways, we’re seeing wetlands being converted. We’re starting to see better fish passage up the waterways. We’re opening up miles and miles of rivers that before weren’t open. It’s really been a godsend.”


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