Everyone knew Donald Trump was no tree hugger or water worshipper. He made that perfectly clear when he told campaign audiences he would get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency. And he underlined it when he appointed an EPA chief who promptly announced that efforts to kill the agency were justified.
Then why are people across the Great Lakes region—local and state government officials, members of Congress, business leaders, citizens whose quality of life is dependent in various ways on lakes—taken aback by the Trump budget proposal to end the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) by shutting off its funding?
They are more than surprised—they are shocked—because what Trump proposes is not just neglect of one the world’s most precious natural wonders; it is a reckless move that threatens the health and economic well being of millions of Americans.
The president, a big fan of branding, has given his budget a name—the “America First Budget,” a catchy but misleading tag for a document drafted by politicians who seem unaware that the Great Lakes region, which is home to more than 10% of the U.S. population, is part of America.
The programs of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have been working since 2010, with local partnerships and shared funding, to not just restore lakes grievously damaged by industrial pollution, but to prevent catastrophic degradation of the lakes’ water quality and ecosystems by out-of-control algae growth and invasive species. This work is a critical need.
The Great Lakes region, the largest freshwater system in the world, contains 95% of this country’s fresh water, provides drinking water for 35 million Americans, supports 1.5 million jobs in tourism, boating and fishing and contributes $5 trillion in gross domestic product annually to the nation’s economy—so much economic production that if the region were a country it would have the world’s third largest economy.
Evidence of ongoing threats to the lakes is plentiful. Algae blooms like those that poisoned Toledo’s Lake Erie drinking water threaten Lake Michigan, especially Green Bay. Monstrous Asian carp, likely to be the most destructive invaders to attack the lakes, capable of wiping out valuable native and stocked fish species, are at the threshold of Lake Michigan. The GLRI has been instrumental in addressing these threats, among many others.
The stakes in the elimination of federal Great Lakes funding are enormous for Ozaukee County, whose entire eastern border is the Lake Michigan shore. The lake is instrumental in powering the county’s prosperity, especially for Port Washington, which would be nothing like the vital, growing community it is without the tourism revenue generated by the lake.
The city and the surrounding area are also in danger of losing the benefits of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shipwreck sanctuary planned for this shore, thanks to deep cuts in NOAA funding proposed by the Trump administration.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker knows that his state has a stake in the health of Lake Michigan. Describing the lake as an asset both “from a commercial standpoint” and in “terms of quality of life,” he promises to advocate for the restoration of GLRI funding with the Trump administration and Congress.
Walker gets it, and so does Wisconsin’s U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is part of a bipartisan group of members of Congress working to save federal funding for the lakes. Governors, senators and representatives of other Great Lakes states have been outspoken in their condemnation of the budget’s death threat to Great Lakes restoration programs.
Yet, except for Baldwin, Wisconsin’s congressional delegation has been shamefully silent. Does Sen. Ron Johnson care about the lakes? Do Reps. Glenn Grothman and Jim Sensenbrenner understand the consequences for the lakes in the Trump budget? What about Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, who happens to represent a Great Lakes state?
It’s hard to know whether the America First Budget’s treatment of the lakes is just another manifestation of White House incompetence—maybe they really haven’t taken the trouble to find out what the Great Lakes region contributes to America—or an irrational element of the plan to destroy the EPA.
Either way, it must be blocked by Congress.