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Editorial: Residents, lawmakers must block plundering of Great Lakes funds

Reports are that President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2020 is already dead on Congress’ doorstep. If so, that’s good news for anyone who lives within the Great Lakes watershed but, just in case, those residents – and especially their federal representatives – need to be on guard.

Despite his unequivocal promise last month that his fight for a border wall funding “won’t affect Buffalo at all,” the spending plan he released on Wednesday virtually obliterates the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and for the same purpose: to build a wall that most of the country doesn’t want.

About 10 percent of the U.S. population lives within the Great Lakes basin. Directly or indirectly, those Americans – tens of millions of Republicans and Democrats – are influenced by those waters.

Unhealthy lakes create unwell communities, germinating ailments of physical, environmental and economic varieties. They matter and, as a 2018 study by the University of Michigan documented, the GLRI is succeeding in restoring the lakes and the communities that rely upon them.

For decades, the fact was either misunderstood or ignored. The pollution was so bad that waterways such as Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. That 1969 blaze called attention to the disastrous condition of the Great Lakes and its watershed, and helped bring about legislation such as the 1972 Clean Water Act and, more recently the GLRI, passed in 2010 and fully funded since then.

In Western New York, alone, the initiative has cleaned the Buffalo River of toxic waste and is expected to make the once dead waterway safe both for swimming and fishing. The Outer Harbor has been dredged and is on its way back. The environmental health of the Niagara River has been improved with the restoration of habitat in four places.

Lake sturgeon are coming back. Threatened by pollution, overfishing and degradation of habitat, the sturgeon – which help to support a rebounding fishing industry – still need to be shepherded to full health.

Other projects offer protection for Western New York. The western part of Lake Erie is suffocating under annual algae blooms. Some have been spotted south of here, near Erie, Pa., and in bays on Lake Ontario. They are an ongoing threat.

Such projects require continued funding to compensate for the decades of damage that were inflicted. All are threatened by Trump’s budget. Under his plan, GLRI funding would be eviscerated – cut by 90 percent, to $30 million from this year’s $300 million.

And, of course, it’s not just Western New York. All five lakes require continued support from both the United States and Canada, which shares four of the lakes with this country.

States and communities bordering the lakes are working to develop a new “blue economy,” that takes responsible advantage of this vast and unique inland sea. Even more fundamentally, they provide water for drinking, cooking, washing and recreation.

Simply put, the water of the Great Lakes basin is our version of the oil that powers the economies of other areas. It is indispensable and, now that Washington has finally recognized that fact through the successful work of the GLRI, it can’t be permitted to walk away with the job only partly done.

This should be a no-brainer for the congressional delegations of the regions around the lakes and their tributaries. For them it can’t be a partisan issue. It’s a matter of fundamental constituent service that serves the interests of all citizens, regardless of party.

Their job is to ensure that the president abides by his promise to this region and that funding for the initiative continues until the day the work is actually done.

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