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Editorial: Gutting of EPA budget threatens to stall urgent progress toward cleaner water

Buffalo has many assets to its rebounding name, including its store of magnificent buildings, its professional sports teams and a sparkling arts scene. None is as important as its place on the water.

Lake Erie and the Niagara River, among other waterways, make Buffalo what it is – and did so long before any of its great buildings were constructed. The water on our western boundary is what defines us and gives the area strength. Western New York has a compelling interest in the reclamation of those waterways and, with that, an urgent reason to oppose plans to gut the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

That’s what is on President Trump’s agenda, as he proposes to pay for a sizable increase in military spending by gutting other departments and agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency. Among the programs targeted, reports say, is the GLRI, whose funding would be reduced to an ineffectual $10 million from its current level of $300 million.

This is a successful program. Because of it, the Buffalo and Niagara rivers are cleaner than they have been in decades. The Buffalo River, once declared biologically dead from industrial pollution, could be swimmable within 12 months and safe for consuming its fish within a decade.

Shorelines have been improved and wildlife habitats restored. Lake sturgeon and bald eagles have rebounded. Contaminated sediment from Scajaquada Creek has been removed, part of a larger project to rejuvenate the creek.

The progress is remarkable but not complete, here and elsewhere around the Great Lakes, a unique inland waterway that had previously been accorded the status of an outhouse. Invasive species remain a threat, for example, as do algae blooms that poison the western end of Lake Erie and threaten to infect the eastern end.

The GLRI is a response to those issues. It has changed the dynamic, for the direct benefit of millions of voters of both parties who live near the lakes and the indirect benefit of millions more.

That makes this a foolish proposal – environmentally, politically and financially. It risks squandering the work already accomplished and turns back on the national commitment to repair the damage done to the Great Lakes and its watershed. In true bipartisan fashion, it will incite the ire of millions of voters and it will do so in the service of a military spending plan that few have suggested is necessary.

None of that is to say that federal spending should never be reviewed or, when appropriate, reduced. It’s hard not to imagine that, like any other sprawling bureaucracy, the EPA couldn’t perform its work more efficiently. It wouldn’t be unusual, or even unwarranted, for a Republican administration to demand that the agency do its job better and with less money.

But that’s not what’s happening here. The EPA’s new administrator is Scott Pruitt, who has made a career of undermining the agency he now leads. And with the Trump administration threatening to cut the GLRI by a bloodletting 97 percent, the program will be left on life support, if it even survives.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, has championed the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and promises to continue fighting for it. “Buffalo is a national model for the effectiveness of these kinds of programs,” he said. “There’s opportunity here for Democrats and Republicans to come together to fight the White House on this.”

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, has also supported the GLRI. But as a vocal supporter of Trump, he was muted in his reaction. “I am aware of the rumored cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and monitoring the situation closely,” he said.

Western New Yorkers have to hope he develops greater enthusiasm for the program and will, like Higgins, fight tooth and nail to preserve it.

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