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The Great Lakes, the budget, and you

Mar 26, 2018

Credit National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Congress passed a budget that gets us through the summer, Donald Trump has signed it, and it contains good news for all of us. For one thing, it means we have again dodged a government shutdown, at least till September.

For another, for the second year in a row, Congress has mostly reversed all the bad things the Trump administration wanted to do to Michigan. That would have included eliminating funds to protect the nation’s most important source of fresh water, a $300 million dollar program called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Not only did Congress fund it and the usual wetlands protection and anti-pollution programs, they mandated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally finish and submit a report on what more can be done to keep Asian carp from getting into Lake Michigan, especially by making the locks safer in Joliet, Illinois.

In fact, while last year Congress seemed to want to make some of the anti-environment budget cuts President Trump wanted, this year they seemed eager to defy him. For example, instead of eliminating the Sea Grant programs that conduct research into the Lakes, this budget actually increases funding for them.

It also includes new money for research into how to further avoid drinking water contamination. This is not what the Trump administration wanted, but despite veto threats, the President signed this budget, because it does significantly increase money for the military, including $1.5 billion for “physical barriers” along our border with Mexico, the beginning, apparently, of his long-awaited wall.

Meanwhile, across the continent, the only wall that I think should appeal to the sane among us is one that would keep invasive species, primarily giant carp, out of the Great Lakes. The good news is that there does seem to be growing recognition of how important the lakes are.

Last week, for the first time ever, Ohio Governor John Kasich and that state’s Environmental Protection Agency declared Ohio’s portion of western Lake Erie “impaired” under the federal Clean Water Act.

Massive algae blooms have been forming in the lake every summer, which become infested with poisonous cyanobacteria that threaten the drinking water supply for eleven million people. Four years ago, this caused the water in Toledo and Michigan’s Monroe counties to be actually declared unsafe for several days. For years, activists have been trying to get Ohio to recognize the problem by admitting that Lake Erie, the most at-risk of the lakes, was impaired.

But yesterday, some had mixed feelings. Markie Miller, who is from Temperance, Michigan, worries the impaired designation will lull people into thinking something is being done about the real problem, which is massive runoffs of agricultural fertilizer.

Miller, an environmental scientist and activist who is trying to promote a Lake Erie Bill of Rights, says what’s really needed is the courage to fight the agricultural lobby in Ohio and pass strong laws that severely restrict the amount of phosphorous that gets into the lakes.

I suspect that’s right, and the fact that people are finally becoming aware of the importance of the Great Lakes may be the best news of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.