White House leads assault on Great Lakes protection
President Trump won the 2016 election in several Great Lakes states, but his EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is leading an assault on Great Lakes protection and restoration. Slashing funding for the sensible Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $300 million annually to zero. Rolling back Clean Water Act standards that protect safe, clean drinking water. Potentially closing the U.S. EPA’s Region 5 office in Chicago, which includes the Great Lakes National Program Office, and transferring its staff to Kansas. What are they thinking? This is a headscratcher, criticized by both Republican and Democratic leaders. Pruitt says he wants to get “back to basics.” What could be more basic than protecting the Great Lakes, which hold the planet’s largest freshwater supply (21 percent of the earth’s total) and provide drinking water for 42 million people. They provide a rich aquatic habitat and ecosystem, support a $7 billion annual fishing industry, and offer lakefront and recreational opportunities for millions of people.
The Great Lakes are one of our great natural treasures. Military analysts say future wars will be fought over freshwater. Minnesotans, Chicagoans, Cheeseheads, Hoosiers, Michiganders, and Ohioans all recognize this remarkable liquid gold. We can’t afford to spoil it. Why put this at risk? First, the Trump Administration’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget would apparently eliminate funding for the successful Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Sens. Franken, Klobuchar and Portman, and other bipartisan senators, representatives, governors and mayors are urging President Trump to reverse course. They understand voters’ strong support for the Great Lakes. The short stopgap fiscal year 2017 budget approved by Congress continues this Great Lakes program at the full $300 million. The administration’s 2018 budget (starting October 1) does not.
This is a practical program that has supported 3,000 projects to keep the lakes clean, preserve shorelines, restore wetlands and protect safe clean drinking water. These include projects to For prevent and reduce harmful invasive species, such as the sea lamprey and quagga mussel in Lake Superior, and $30 million to clean up and restore the severely contaminated St. Louis River estuary in Duluth. Second, Pruitt is rushing to roll back clean water standards that protect safe drinking water and preserve fish and wildlife habitat. The Environmental Law & Policy Center commissioned 12 focus groups of Trump voters in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. While they didn’t like regulatory paperwork, these voters solidly support regulations to protect safe clean water as common sense. They understand that pollution upstream or next door can contaminate their drinking water. They like swimming in clean lakes and enjoy playing on nice beaches. Some remember when raw industrial sewage polluted our lakes before the Clean Water Act was passed and implemented. They didn’t vote for a rollback.
Third, the administration’s rumored plans to close the U.S. EPA Region 5 Office in Chicago, which oversees the largest freshwater body in the world, are tone-deaf and foolish. The EPA’s national Great Lakes Program and experienced staff are in Chicago. The plan would transfer staff to the Region 7 Office in Lenexa, Kan., as the new center for EPA’s Great Lakes protection work and team. When the Enbridge pipeline broke and spilled oil into the Kalamazoo River, would EPA’s emergency team have responded more quickly from Lenexa, Kan., than from Chicago? Will Kansas-based staff better deal with algae blooms in Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, and contaminated drinking water in East Chicago, Flint and Toledo? The administration suggests that consolidating Chicago’s Region 5 office into Kansas’ Region 7 office will save money, but that’s penny-wise and pound foolish, just like the flawed choice to seek short-term cost savings that resulted in the Flint contaminated water tragedy.
Good policy is good politics. This shortsighted attack on the Great Lakes and safe clean drinking water is bad policy. The public and most political leaders know better. The battle for Great Lakes protection is well worth fighting and winning, but this battle shouldn’t have to be fought. President Trump, it’s time to step back and reconsider.