The proposed Trump budget includes, among many other agency cuts, massive cuts in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). Launched in 2010, the GLRI receives about $300 million a year in federal funding to help states and tribes with environmental projects around the lakes like cleaning up toxic sludge in tributary rivers, keeping invasive Asian carp out of the lakes and helping reduce the threat of harmful algae blooms.
The Great Lakes region stretches across eights states and the health of the lakes affect more than 30 million people in the United States and Canada. The lakes hold 84 percent of all surface freshwater in North America. Efforts to restore the lakes also represent a diplomatic collaboration via the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the two nations. With the EPA spearheading U.S. activities, the agreement was first introduced in 1972 and was updated most recently in 2012.
The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1987 identified 43 geographic areas of concern: 26 in the U.S., 12 in Canada and five shared between the two countries. These were locations suffering environmental degradation as a result of human activity. In 2012, the updated agreement reaffirmed these areas and the effort to restore them.
Since being identified, four areas in the U.S. and three areas in Canada have been removed from the list because they have been restored. Two of the recovered U.S. sites received nearly $13 million total funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Restoration of White Lake, Mich., an area of concern delisted in 2014, spurred new real estate development, said Richard Hobrla, head of the Great Lakes Coordination Program within the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
“If [the Trump budget] went through as it’s proposed, it would be fairly catastrophic,” Hobrla said. Although he expects some funding cuts, Hobrla doesn’t think the GLRI will be completely shut down. “There’s just too much support for the EPA and for the program and for the general goals of clean water and clean air.”
Nevertheless, some areas could be heavily affected if funding stopped. Torch Lake, Mich., on the shore of Lake Superior, is one example of a trouble spot that needs more work, according to Hobrla, who speculates that a loss of funding from GLRI would mean it might never get cleaned up. For similar areas of concern that have not significantly improved, Hobrla thinks it’s unlikely there would be state funding to support these initiatives if federal funding were to be drained.
A 2011 study by the University of Michigan found that more than 1.5 million jobs are directly connected to the lakes, generating $62 billion in wages annually. The Rust Belt states that border the Great Lakes rely on the lakes for shipping and transportion of goods and commodities. The influence of the lakes however, extends beyond factories. According to the Brookings Institution, every dollar spent on the GLRI brings in $2 worth of long-term economic gains.
The EPA is also responsible for monitoring Great Lakes Water quality. When bacteria is high, municipalities might close swimming beaches. A major problem for the lakes is phosphorous pollution and associated algae blooms, which can deplete oxygen. Low oxygen levels can kill fish, putting vital fisheries at risk.
In addition to funding, the EPA provides research that helps local jurisdictions make decisions, as well as assistance with coordination to hold these jurisdictions accountable. While Trump’s proposed cuts may not pass, a significant reduction in the EPA’s budget may have wide-ranging effects.