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Proposed Budget Cuts Slash Funding For Great Lakes Clean-Up


The White House is proposing deep cuts to a lot of government programs, particularly those at the EPA and other agencies that focus on the environment. If Congress goes along, it could mean the end of federal funds for cleaning up the Great Lakes. Some Republicans have joined with Democrats to preserve that money. From Oberlin, Ohio, Karen Schaefer has more.

KAREN SCHAEFER, BYLINE: The Great Lakes are bordered by eight states and the province of Ontario and contain one-fifth of the world's fresh water. For the last seven years, Washington has been spending about $300 million a year to fund an initiative that helps states with environmental projects, like cleaning up toxic sludge from tributary rivers and keeping invasive Asian carp out of the lakes. The money's also being used to help reduce the threat from harmful algae blooms. One such bloom triggered a temporary shutdown at Toledo's drinking water intake in 2014.

KELLY FREY: OK, this is a two-step process.

SCHAEFER: At the water treatment plant in Port Clinton, Ohio, about 50 miles east of Toledo, 9 million gallons of water a day pulled from Lake Erie and pumped into a huge round room called a flocculation chamber. Here the water is mixed so that muck from the lake forms larger clumps that can be more easily removed. That includes the residue of toxic algae blooms. When these blooms show up, Ottawa County sanitary engineer Kelly Frey has to work quickly to remove the algae, which can emit a deadly neurotoxin. To locate the blooms in the lake, he relies on satellite imagery developed by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

FREY: It's the first thing I think about when I wake up. And I'm, like, checking the NOAA maps all the time, whenever I get the chance online - at home, work, whenever.

SCHAEFER: NOAA's newest satellite imagery program is also slated for deep cuts. And Frey is concerned that if Congress approves those cuts it will end the biweekly forecasts that he and others count on as their front line of defense.

FREY: The potential loss of our health and for a potential loss of jobs, potential loss of our economy as a result of not having safe drinking water. It's very concerning to all of us.

SCHAEFER: Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman is also concerned not only about public health but about the economic benefits of working to restore the ecology of the Great Lakes. He says Great Lakes funding generates about $80 billion a year in benefits to health, tourism, fishing and recreation.

ROB PORTMAN: This program works. It's a good public-private partnership. And because the Great Lakes are so important to us in Ohio, this partnership has been really helpful to protect the lake, protect our environment, but also protect our economy.

SCHAEFER: As these states' politicians think about how to potentially replace the $300 million in annual federal funding, they wonder why this program is being targeted. Dave Cohen, a fellow with the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics, thinks it's simply a matter of priorities.

DAVID COHEN: The Trump administration has a lot of defense increases to pay for. Governing is difficult. You have to make choices. You have to make tradeoffs. And let's face it, environmental issues are about near the bottom of the priority list for this administration.

SCHAEFER: But for Great Lakes governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Snyder of Michigan, and for U.S. and Canadian members of the Great Lakes Commission, the priorities are clear. They view the Great Lakes as a bipartisan issue vital to their environment, economy and the health of the 35 million people who rely on them for their drinking water every day. For NPR News, I'm Karen Schaefer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Karen Schaefer