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Another Voice: Great Lakes initiative crucial to our region’s future

By Natalie O’Hern

Because my family comes from Syracuse, the story of Onondaga Lake often crosses my mind. Once a beautiful lake, years of industrial dumping by Allied Chemical turned it into the “Most Polluted Lake in America.” While millions of federal dollars and years of dredging have remediated most toxins, I worry that Lake Ontario – the lake I grew up exploring – will meet the same fate.

A year ago, President Trump published his proposed federal budget for 2019. Last week, with a government shutdown looming, bickering between Trump and Democrats over funding the impractical border wall with Mexico made headlines. But Trump’s refusal to support federal environmental programs, even measures that are wildly successful, has seldom received the media attention it deserves.

For residents of the Great Lakes region like me who care about the environment, Trump’s budget plan is a disaster in the making. Funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, managed by the EPA, is slated for reduction from $300 million to $30 million – a draconian 90 percent cut.

Begun in 2010, the GLRI focuses on environmental issues in the Great Lakes Region. But the program also generates economic activity – approximately $3.35 for every federal dollar spent. Because the initiative increases tourism and property values across the Great Lakes region, it has bipartisan support in Congress.

While the Trump administration’s assault on water protection programs has impeded clean water progress across the country, the GLRI budget has remained steady at $300 million for the past two years because it’s popular on Capitol Hill. Thankfully, last June the House Appropriations Committee passed legislation maintaining the GLRI budget at $300 million for 2019.

The GLRI deploys federal agencies to address the most urgent threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem. The initiative has spearheaded the fight against invasive species like the silverhead and bighead carp, which pose dangers to recreational boaters, and squeeze out native species. The GLRI is also tackling zebra mussels, sea lamprey and phragmites.

Last month, the fourth National Climate Assessment report predicted that excess algae growth in the Great Lakes will increase due to rising temperatures from climate change. The report found that algae blooms already “exact a cost ... of approximately $2.2 billion annually in the United States.”

Even though climate change will hurt our wallets, it puts much more – including those vast blue lakes cherished by upstate New York – at risk. Our lives are inexorably tied with the Great Lakes. If they die, our communities suffer too.

Natalie O’Hern, a native of Rochester, studies environmental law and policy at Wellesley College.

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