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Trump's Budget Plan Proposes Cuts To Great Lakes Restoration Projects


Another big item before Congress is President Trump's budget for the next fiscal year. Among many cuts, it proposes eliminating funding for cleaning up the Great Lakes. Millions of people depend on the lakes for drinking water. And over the past seven years, federally funded programs have put all five lakes on a path toward cleaner water. Elizabeth Miller of WCPN ideastream takes us on a quick tour of the Great Lakes, starting near the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

ELIZABETH MILLER, BYLINE: We'll start at the western edge of Lake Superior, the St. Louis River. Like a lot of rivers here, its industrial past embraces decades of steel making. Mike Bares of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says contaminated sentiment here is up to 17 feet thick.

MIKE BARES: It's really hard to see contamination that's under the water. It's in the aquatic ecosystem, and this really is causing some major issues.

MILLER: The proposed cleanup plan has a big price tag, $69 million. And that's where the federal money comes in. Since 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has funded more than 2,000 projects, including efforts to keep out invasive Asian carp. About 500 miles southeast in a canal near Chicago lies an underwater electric barrier. It's meant to keep voracious Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan. Researchers here worry about losing funding for efforts to make sure the barriers work. Molly Flanagan of the Alliance for the Great Lakes says last month's discovery of a live carp just 9 miles from Lake Michigan adds urgency.

MOLLY FLANAGAN: Funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative goes to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to help with their harvesting effort, to reduce population and the pressure that fish experience to move closer to Lake Michigan.

MILLER: Over on Lake Erie, the threat to fish isn't the main problem. It's the health of folks eating fish like walleye and perch, especially in summer when toxic algae blooms appear.

STUART LUDSIN: The state's been getting a lot of questions from anglers about whether it's safe to eat fish during the cyanobacteria or harmful algal bloom season. And so instead of just guessing they wanted to obviously put some quantitative data to it.

MILLER: That's Ohio State University professor Stuart Ludsin, one of several researchers looking at algae blooms with funding from the Ohio Sea Grant. This is another project the Trump budget wants eliminated along with 33 Sea Grant programs across the country. And clearly there are philosophical differences over what the federal government should be funding.

Now let's head north to Lake Huron, which borders eastern Michigan and Canada. Most of Michigan's 2,600 dams were built decades ago, and many need to be removed before they collapse. One such project on the Maple River is slated to cost $2.3 million, and about half would be covered by federal funding. Amy Beyer works for the group in charge of the removal.

AMY BEYER: Dam failures like that can be very, very expensive in terms of property loss, insurance claims, in the worst case even loss of life. So we feel it's really important to do everything we can to be proactive and remove these dams in a controlled fashion.

MILLER: Ontario is the easternmost Great Lake. And it's here that scientists use federal money to help the lake sturgeon, an ancient fish that can live over 100 years and grow up to 8 feet long. Biologist Dimitry Gorsky says his group gets $300,000 for a number of projects, including inserting tracking devices inside sturgeon to gauge the health of Lake Ontario.

DIMITRY GORSKY: The money helped us build capacity by replacing outdated boats and equipment, increasing our personnel.

MILLER: President Trump's proposed budget will not likely be the final draft. The Great Lakes have faced cuts before, but Congress pushed back. Politicians from the eight Great Lakes states are pledging to fight for full funding again, though this time it will likely be much more difficult. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Miller.

SHAPIRO: And that story comes to us from the public radio collaboration Great Lakes Today.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DIP'S "WON'T BE COMING BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Miller