The Trump administration makes a straightforward case for slashing $300 million in federal spending to clean up pollution and restore fishing and other recreational opportunities around the Great Lakes: State and local governments should do the work and foot the bill.
Supporters of the program and smaller ones aimed at healing other regional water bodies such as Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound argue it’s not that simple. Cleaning up the nation’s iconic waterways is a team effort involving all levels of government, with nonprofit groups, universities and other players pitching in and the federal government serving as coach and sometimes as referee. If Washington walks away, some participants fear, the partnerships could unravel and the cleanups falter.
“It is the main source for pulling so many things together,” Jim Hurley, director of the UW-Madison Sea Grant Institute, said of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which accounts for most of Trump’s cuts. “Boy, it would be tough to lose that momentum right now.”
The Great Lakes initiative has spent more than $2 billion since President Barack Obama established it in 2010, removing contaminated sediments from harbors, fighting invasive species, restoring wildlife habitat and studying harmful algal blooms.
“Federal involvement is critical to keeping the states working together,” said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which advocates for restoration of the nation’s largest estuary. “The states put in a lot of money, but the federal partnership is crucial.”
The proposed Environmental Protection Agency budget for fiscal 2018 released Tuesday calls for eliminating a series of initiatives targeting regional waters plagued with pollution that threatens human health, kills fish and harms tourism.
A White House summary said the programs fund “primarily local efforts,” although they “have received significant federal funding, coordination and oversight to date.” It adds, “State and local groups are engaged and capable of taking on management of clean-up and restoration of these water bodies.”
The federal largesse not only helps pay for thousands of cleanup projects, supporters said. It gives the EPA leverage to help forge a common front among eight states — from Minnesota to New York — that compete with each other economically and can have sharp political differences.
Cameron Davis, who oversaw the Great Lakes initiative as a former EPA senior adviser, said it was crucial in uniting the region around a strategy for preventing invasive Asian carp from reaching the lakes through a Chicago-area canal at a time when the states were feuding over the matter in court.
“Funding has a magical way of bringing people to the table that otherwise might not pull up a chair,” Davis said.
Federal involvement also helped spur action in the Chesapeake Bay, Baker said. The watershed includes parts of six states and Washington, D.C., which often were at odds over responsibilities of those nearest the bay and those farther upstream.
Under the program, he said, the federal government brings funding, technical assistance and “a willingness to call out a state that is not participating and therefore dragging the collective group down.”
“This is a prime example of the cooperative federalism that the administration talks about,” Baker said. “We’re totally perplexed as to why they’d want to end it.”
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Congress has final say
Congress will have the final say about the suggested cuts, which have drawn criticism from lawmakers in both parties. The programs are popular with constituents who treasure clean beaches and good fishing. Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican and member of the staunchly conservative Freedom Caucus, was among the signatories of a Feb. 23 letter to President Donald Trump supporting continued funding of the Chesapeake Bay rescue.
“We must ensure that this important work continues, and that federal funds continue to be available to support this effort,” the letter said.
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, didn’t directly address elimination of the lakes money, but he said in a statement that “at the very least the president’s budget recognizes that for far too long we as a country have spent beyond our means.”
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, said Trump’s proposal was out of step with Wisconsin tradition.
“With our natural resources supporting over $5 billion of activity in Wisconsin’s economy alone, preserving the Great Lakes is an economic necessity,” Baldwin said.
After Trump signaled in March his intention to end the program, Republican Gov. Scott Walker said he would work with House and Senate leaders and talk with the Trump administration about restoring the funding.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson didn’t respond Wednesday when asked if the governor favored continuing the initiative with state dollars if the federal money is eliminated.
Even with bipartisan backing, advocates say Trump’s opposition to the programs leaves them highly vulnerable. Even if they survive, they might lose some of their funding at a time when strapped state and local governments would be hard-pressed to make up the difference.
“Our state is having a tremendous budget challenge as it is,” said Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, a Washington state agency.
Sahandy and other officials pointed out that many of the federal grants awarded under the water restoration programs require at least partial matching funds from other participants.
“The great threat is that you lose faith among state agencies and local communities that the federal government will do their share,” said Brian Moore, the National Audubon Society’s policy director for the Gulf of Mexico, another waterway with a cleanup program that would be defunded under the Trump budget.
State Journal reporter Steven Verburg contributed to this report.