News Tribune Editorial Board
In just under three months, the news has gone from super bad to devastatingly worse for a federal program that actually has been making real progress in cleaning up — finally — the St. Louis River and other heavily polluted "areas of concern" around the Great Lakes.
In March, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was listed among potential federal budget cuts under new President Donald Trump. The initiative's $300 million annual appropriation faced a slash to just $10 million, a whopping 97 percent reduction.
Then, last week, in the budget blueprint sent to Congress, the initiative's funding was eliminated altogether.
If the proposal comes to pass, it'd spell armageddon for a program that has been restoring wetlands, reestablishing wildlife habitat, and improving water quality all across the Upper Midwest. It'd put a stop to a breathtakingly impressive environmental rebound after decades of heavy industrial pollution around the Great Lakes followed by decades of just ignoring the toxic messes left behind.
In Duluth, along the St. Louis River, the initiative has been responsible for the restoration of wild rice beds, sturgeon spawning grounds, and the habitats of piping plover and other nesting birds. Work to cap and remove contaminated river-bottom sediment is up next, though that's now threatened by the proposed federal budget cut.
The Minnesota Legislature certainly hopes the work is still up next. Lawmakers included in their bonding bill this session $25.4 million for St. Louis River cleanup, a state allocation that promises to release $47.2 million in federal funding from the initiative for the same project.
On Tuesday, Kris Eilers of the St. Louis River Alliance had high praise for the state funding — and for the message it could send to D.C.
"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity," Eilers said at a press conference in Duluth. "The passing of (the state bonding) bill is perfectly timed because the design work has already been under way on this project, and it sends a strong message to our Congress to continue federal funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that has been largely responsible for powering ... the successes that we've seen with a cleaner river and how that impacts our community."
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been powering Great Lakes cleanup efforts since the presidency of George W. Bush. With adequate and appropriate funding under President Barack Obama, the initiative has removed mercury and other contaminants from river bottoms and lake bottoms; has made water swimmable, fishable, and even drinkable again; and otherwise has turned environmental disasters into cleanup successes.
And, despite the bad news in March and even worse news last week, here's reason for optimism the initiative can continue: Its defunding is far from a done deal. A long legislative process is to come. The EPA is expected to appeal. And even if reduced funding makes it into a final budget plan, Congress often rewrites appropriations, sometimes quite drastically.
Count U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota among the many supporters the initiative will need in the budget battle ahead.
"The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has broad, bipartisan support in Congress," Klobuchar said in a statement released Tuesday to the News Tribune Opinion page and others. "Cutting this initiative, as the administration has proposed in its budget, would undermine the progress of the St. Louis River restoration right as the project enters its most important phase. We should work together to make sure important projects like this one can get done. It's good for the environment, it's good for business, and it's good for Minnesotans who want to get out and enjoy our state's natural resources."
Reclaiming the Great Lakes has been embraced as a priority for too long by too many — and with too many successes — to be abandoned now. And that can be another message for D.C.