This is the first of eight articles in the Standpoint Series, a set of short essays meant to articulate our perspective and spark conversation.
It’s been nearly a year since the new Congress and Administration took office. The Great Lakes region and the country’s environmental institutions continue to brace for blows from D.C.
The administration’s proposed 2018 budget zeroed out all regional watershed programs — a wonky way of saying the White House wants no more federal cash or staff for restoring the Great Lakes. The proposal would also eviscerate U.S. EPA as we know it, remaking it in a fantasy where massive pollution that flows across state and national borders would somehow be wished away. But the Great Lakes are facing problems all too real, and the Trump administration’s posture would have serious repercussions for people across the Great Lakes and on both sides of the aisle.
In September, the House of Representatives passed a less-austere spending bill that does include Great Lakes funding, but it is far from a home run for the Great Lakes. The legislation does not increase vital infrastructure spending, which both political parties agree is critical to protecting clean water, and slashes EPA’s budget back to 2006 levels. Going backwards by more than a decade is not a strong opening bid. It’s a jolting reminder that defending what we already had is not the same as winning.
Let’s take a moment to remember exactly what federal dollars for the Great Lakes were meant for in the first place. Great Lakes water built and mobilized the country. Great Lakes water is in billions of tons of steel from New York to Detroit to Chicago, in the buildings that make up powerhouse metropolises, tight-knit small communities, and centers of job creation. The Great Lakes are in the cars, trucks and trains that make transit between cities and rural areas easy and the flow of goods possible. They drip from grain that feeds people and livestock. They cool the refineries that feed gas tanks and process that grain into ethanol.
And for all of this, the Great Lakes region is paying a price. Rivers and harbors are still home to toxic chemicals. Agriculture concentrates pollution that can take a whole city’s water supply offline. The Great Lakes propel the national economy forward, and share in the economic benefits. Now, we are bearing the consequences, and that burden must also be shared. These consequences are a local, state and yes, national responsibility, and we need money and people to solve those problems.
While defending this bargain is a necessary part of protecting the Great Lakes, it is not sufficient. Federal money will never stop enough pollution flowing into Lake Erie to prevent water from turning toxic. Dollars alone won’t change the fact that lower-income people and people of color bear a disproportionately large share of water stresses in the region, like lack of safe drinking water and overloaded sewers. Shortcomings of water governance laid bare in Flint, in Lake Erie, in Illinois, and elsewhere won’t be solved by defending the status quo, and neither will the shortchanging of basic water infrastructure investment in hundreds of Great Lakes cities and towns.
We must — with full voice and no hesitation — defend bargains already struck. We should also seek to do better. The threats that will undermine a healthy Great Lakes for another generation are already on our doorstep — and what does that look like? Working families unable to rely on safe and free recreation in clean water and at local beaches, people in coastal cities like Toledo marking toxic water season on their calendars, and business owners missing the tourists that fill community coffers every summer. While reaction is substituting for vision across the country, the people of the Great Lakes must stand strong and demand that clean water remain at the center of our region’s future.
What I really want is what I know many people of the Great Lakes are already working hard for. Agriculture that leaves our rivers and lakes clean, with less offloaded pollution and fewer unpaid bills. Cities, towns and countryside alike where everyone can connect to the lakes through safe, clean and affordable water — for drinking, for swimming, for enjoying. Businesses that invest in the Great Lakes region and leave our waters better than when they arrived. Lakes protected from needless and costly threats like new invasive species or contamination by oil spills. And ultimately, millions of people in vibrant communities across the Great Lakes, secure in job and home, and inspired to act to protect our clean waters for generations to come.