What President Trump's Great Lakes budget could mean for NEO

What President Trump's Great Lakes budget could mean for NEO
Cuyahoga River on Fire, Courtesy Cleveland Historical Society
Cuyahoga River on Fire, Courtesy Cleveland Historical Society

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - President Donald Trump's proposed budget eliminates federal funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program with bipartisan support that proponents say helps the environment and economy.

The GLRI started in 2010, and has spent nearly $1.8 billion on projects across the Great Lakes region. It has received $300 million annually for the past several years to spend on project that primarily do four things, preventing and controlling invasive species, reducing nutrient runoff that contributes to harmful/nuisance algal blooms, restoring habitat to protect native species and cleaning up Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

Several of those areas of concern are in northeast Ohio.

Marc Lefkowitz, the director of the Sustainability Program at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, said that completely rolling back all environmental regulation could roll back the clock on environmental improvements as well.

"Could we wind up going back to the river running red and catching fire, the lake being uninhabitable for a lot of species I think that's a very real possibility," said Lefkowitz.

It's been nearly 50 years since the Cuyahoga River infamously caught fire and garnered national attention. A possible first step backwards could be de-funding the GLRI.

Politicians and groups on both sides of the aisle have spoken out against cutting the program. The concerns cited range from environment to the economy, even to the safety of drinking water.

About 20 percent of the world's fresh water is in the Great Lakes.

Cleveland 19 asked Lefkowitz if it's possible to divorce drinking water safety from the health and safety of the Great Lakes – the source of that drinking water.

"Not in my mind I don't see how you can actually separate the two. This Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was formed specifically to preserve the water in the water shed and to make sure it was healthy from now in perpetuity," said Lefkowitz.

U.S. senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman both issued statements saying they do not support the President's budget.

"Taking an ax to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative will cost Ohio jobs and jeopardize public health by putting the well-being of Lake Erie at risk. As a kid, I remember seeing how polluted Lake Erie was, and we can't put an end to our cleanup efforts when we've made such progress. My colleagues in the Ohio delegation and I will not stand for a budget that zeroes out this critical program," said Brown, a Democrat, in a statement.

Republican Sen. Portman issued a similar statement: “The Great Lakes are an invaluable resource to Ohio, and The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been a successful public-private partnership that helps protect both our environment and our economy.  According to a recent study, the GLRI’s work generates a total of more than $80 billion in benefits in health, tourism, fishing, and recreation. The study also states that GLRI saves local communities like Toledo $50 million in costs, and increases property values across the region by a total of $12 billion. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been a critical tool in our efforts to help protect and restore Lake Erie, and when the Obama administration proposed cuts to the program, I helped lead the effort to restore full funding.  I have long championed this program, and I’m committed to continuing to do everything I can to protect and preserve Lake Erie, including preserving this critical program and its funding. The president’s budget states that eliminating funding for the GLRI would return “the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to State and local entities.”

Cleveland 19 reached out to the Ohio EPA to see if the agency would, or could, step up the funding for similar Great Lakes projects.

Heidi Griesmer, a spokesperson for the OEPA, said that while the agency understands that the budget process is a long one, if the budget would be as it is Thursday, it would make it very difficult to continue to improve Lake Erie.

"We are concerned about the president's budget but we recognize it's very, very early in the process and we will be providing input to Administrator Pruitt," she said.

Cleveland 19 also spoke to the Executive Director of the Cleveland Water Alliance, Bryan Stubbs, about the possibility of local or regional funding for Great Lakes projects in lieu of federal funding. He said he doesn't "see that happening given the "complexities of water and political boundaries." He said it would need to be a shared or federal response.

Representatives from the Sierra Club and the Cleveland Water Alliance also weighed in on the GLRI funding issue, you can read their statements below.

From Jennifer Miller, Director of the Sierra Club's Ohio Chapter:

"President Trump's proposal to completely eliminate all funding for Great Lakes protection and cleanup programs is a shocking abandonment of crucial, successful efforts to protect our drinking water and the most important natural asset for our entire region.

"Just a few years ago, the people of Toledo couldn't drink their water because of toxic algae contamination. Still today, toxic algae and dead zones stretch from Maumee Bay all the way to Cleveland and as far North as Pele Island.

"Putting America first means protecting our waterways, and the Great Lakes are the most important natural and economic asset to our region. By cutting Great Lakes protection, President Trump is cutting good jobs in water infrastructure projects, he is cutting the cleanup of toxic pollution in our drinking water, and he is cutting our tourism revenues - because no one wants to swim, fish, or boat in bright green slop."

From Bryan Stubbs, Executive Director of the Cleveland Water Alliance:

"The bi-partisan Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), is an effort to restore the health of our fresh water asset, now faces an unprecedented federal elimination. The initiative addresses several ongoing challenges including combating harmful algal blooms along with ongoing cleanup efforts of our Cuyahoga River.  Lake Erie and its supporting watersheds provide drinking water to millions of Ohioans, supports over 100,000 Ohio jobs, provides billions of dollars in direct economic impact to our state and local economies, and drives new technologies and job creation to Northeast Ohio. In a changing world with increasing water stresses, the responsible management of our fresh water asset, 20% of the world's fresh surface water, has never been more urgent. And the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) serves an important role in that work."

For more information: https://www.glri.us/

Copyright 2017 WOIO. All rights reserved.