204 years ago there was more than a war of words on the Great Lakes, as the American Navy fought the British in the Battle of Lake Erie. It was a tough fight, won by US Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry after a scary boat ride as he switched from his crippled ship to another. (That’s the scene in all the famous paintings) When it was over, he scrawled a message on the back of an old envelope and sent it to his superior: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Coincidentally, that phrase became a touchstone of the environmental movement that we show every Earth Day, with Walt Kelly’s poster “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
On April 28, 1817, both parties signed the Rush-Bagot treaty that demilitarized the border, and Canada and the USA have been working together ever since, signing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972, the Great Lakes Charter in 1985 and The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) of 2010, launched “to accelerate efforts to protect and restore the largest system of fresh surface water in the world — the Great Lakes.”
The GLRI is funded by the Canadian and American governments, and is cleaning up areas of concern, preventing and controlling invasive species, reducing nutrient runoff that contributes to algal blooms and restoring habitat to protect native species.
But after almost exactly 200 years of peace on the Great Lakes, there is a war of words going on right now, thanks to a provision in the proposed budget for the EPA that effectively kills the GLRI, reducing its funding from $300 million to $10 million. And it’s not just lefty Treehuggers who are outraged, it's also Republicans and Trump voters.
Rep Fred Upton,(R) says "These reports are alarming. We have previously communicated with the new administration that our Great Lakes must be a priority and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative must be fully funded.” Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland says “"The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has proven to be an important and effective tool in the effort to improve the environmental and economic health of the Great Lakes Region.”
In fact, a lot of Republicans are shaking their heads. According to Thomas Suddes in Cleveland,
That's why the Trump administration's proposed defunding of the Great Lakes initiative is puzzling. It ticks off some of the president's fellow Republicans in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin - all Great Lakes states, all Trump states in November. (The other Great Lakes states are Minnesota, Illinois and New York, which voted for Hillary Clinton for president.)
Even Scott Walker in Wisconsin supports the GLRI, saying "It makes sense for us to continue to make prudent investments in protecting and improving the Great Lakes."
In Chicago, Peter Annin wonders:
Throughout the Great Lakes region, Trump's sobering budget news was met with blanched reactions of denial, gallows humor and rage. But the more appropriate reaction might be, "Is Trump really going to gore a sacred ox in the electoral region that put him in office?"
He notes that few initiatives have such widespread, bipartisan support.
Why? The program is as popular with the camo-clad hook-and-bullet guys as it is with the granola crowd. The Council of Great Lakes Industries is an enthusiastic supporter as well. The restoration initiative's popularity emanates from thousands of projects that produced tangible ecological results — including the cleanup and delisting of toxic "areas of concern" in presidential battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.
North of the border, there is predictable outrage, with the Environment Minister saying “We must now pursue that commitment to keep protecting this precious resource, and continue investing in the Great Lakes on both sides of the border.” From the Globe and Mail:
“It’s like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick,” said David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a coalition of 128 municipalities on both sides of the border. “Very vindictive and mean-spirited is what it is ... And morally, it’s reprehensible because this is something we need to leave to future generations in good shape.”
But hey, according to the EPA, “The budget blueprint reflects the President’s priorities of preserving clean air and water as well as to ease the burden of costly regulations to industry.”
As one commenter put it: “ Make America uninhabitable again! Back to burning canals and dead fish.”
Fortunately, budgets are written by Congress and not by the President, and this one might be dead on arrival. It is also fortunate that we are still at the War of Words stage. It has been said many times that the next big wars will be fought over water. It probably won’t be on the great lakes, but none of this helps.