Local officials decry proposed Great Lakes budget cuts

Mar 23, 2017 Issues: Health Care

METRO DETROIT — The Great Lakes have experienced a major comeback in recent years, though some local and national officials are worried that the recovery will not come completely to fruition.

These concerns are occurring amid reports that President Donald Trump’s administration is eyeing potentially eliminating the $300 million in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or GLRI.

In the last eight years, bipartisan support from Congress led to nearly $2 billion in investments for approximately 3,000 GLRI-related projects.

The GLRI is an interagency program that focuses on five major Great Lakes ecosystem priorities: cleaning up “areas of concern” in the Great Lakes, fighting invasive species, targeting nearshore nonpoint pollution, restoring habitats and protecting wildlife, and promoting environmental education and partnerships.

Recently, U.S. Reps. Sander Levin, D-Michigan; Louise Slaughter, D-New York; and David Joyce, R-Ohio, “led” an appropriations letter that addressed the ramifications of cutting such programs.

“The Great Lakes are truly a national treasure,” the letter states. “The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world, holding roughly 18 percent of the world’s freshwater supply and 90 percent of the United States’ freshwater supply. The Lakes are also an economic driver that supports jobs, commerce, agriculture, transportation, and tourism for millions of people across the country.”

An appropriations letter is akin to an open invitation that is drafted and circulated around Washington, D.C., allowing for different members to sign and support the cause.

Levin, Slaughter and Joyce also “led” last year’s GLRI appropriation letter — which garnered bipartisan support from 55 U.S. House of Representatives lawmakers.

Levin said the GLRI is a “major initiative” that has transformed waters that 25 years ago were heavily polluted. He expressed extreme resentment at the thought of funding being slashed to such a large degree.

“(My intent is to) fight it completely,” Levin said. “The notion that we’re going to cut a key program to pay for other purposes, whether it’s defense expenditures or other expenditures or the Republican health care plan — we’re going to fight any efforts to cut it.

“We hope there will be support from the administration, and if they’re going to pursue any cuts like some think, we will fight it.”

Recent reports indicate that Trump’s administration is proposing $2 billion in total cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Along with the GLRI, areas such as the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound would be affected.

Also, a slash in EPA money could lead to reduced testing in areas such as diesel emissions and beach water.

Levin called such potential cuts “terribly misguided,” saying that individual states can’t decide matters like this. The Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay impact numerous states in different regions, he added.

He said the joke 30 years ago was that a person could walk from Monroe to Cleveland, due to pollution in the lakes. Now, the threat of something like Asian carp could have ruinous implications.

“It’s a continuing challenge,” he said. “There are still beach closures on Lake St. Clair and other lakes, and if we’re not on our toes we’re going to badly stub our toes in terms of the environment. It would be totally shortsighted, and pollution can return if we’re not battling it.”

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, who was recently appointed to the Great Lakes Commission, feels the GLRI is already underfunded, and proposing to slice such a considerable amount of dollars from its programs is ill-advised. She’s also confident that the proposal won’t come with much support.

“Every president in history has proposed and Congress has opposed,” she said. “Great Lake funding has broad congressional support in Michigan and in every delegation along the Great Lakes, of which there are eight. We can anticipate a huge pushback.”
Funding also affects local municipalities.

Bryan Babcock, director of the St. Clair Shores Department of Public Works, said that the city has benefited from more than $300,000 in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative money and has been told to expect more.

The city installed a “green” parking lot at Kyte Monroe Memorial Park on Harper Avenue in 2016 with $250,000 in money from the GLRI that helps keep harmful pollutants out of Lake St. Clair by absorbing rainwater runoff in the parking lot, which includes asphalt, porous pavement and a rain garden. In addition, Babcock said the city planted 500 trees with a $100,000 GLRI grant and was awarded another $100,000 to plant more trees at the end of 2016.

“The grant projects that we’ve done are aimed at improving stormwater quality. Whether it’s a parking lot that absorbs the water and naturally filters it instead of going straight to the lake (or) the trees that we plant, they absorb surface water instead of sending it straight to the lake,” he said. “It also can help our sewer system by lessening the amount of water that needs to be drained.”

If that money were to disappear, he said future projects to filter and clean water before it hits Lake St. Clair could be in jeopardy.

“We keep applying; we keep going after anything that’s available,” he said. “There’s another round of tree planting that’s available within the next month — we’re going to be applying for that.”

He said St. Clair Shores needs young new trees because many trees in the city, especially 50- to 70-year-old silver maples, are reaching the end of their life cycle.

The appropriations letter also discusses how budget cuts would impact specific areas of the environment.

For example, in 2014 a toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie forced 400,000 residents in the Toledo area to be without home water service for three days. The GLRI helps monitor situations related to drinking water, as well as potential health impacts associated with beaches.

When asked how he would respond to critics who say that $300 million in funding is just continuation of bloated government, Levin said those critics possess myopic viewpoints.

There is no middle ground when it comes to separating political ideology from environmental studies, he said, due to scientific evidence. The state of Michigan’s environmental future — in terms of not just the lakes’ health, but also their economic impact due to recreation — could be in peril.

“I think the people who deny (climate change) should take their ideological blinders off,” Levin said.

At press time, signatures were being collected for the appropriations letter. Currently making its way through the House of Representatives, the letter is expected to be sent to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies later this month.

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