The White House is set to release its final budget the week of March 13, and unless changes are made, funding for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) projects could be cut from $300 million to $10 million.
The cuts were included in a proposed budget that was obtained by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies and first reported by the Oregonian earlier this month.
The GLRI was launched in 2010 and has been awarded nearly $2 billion in funding since its inception for over 3,000 restoration and protection projects across the eight Great Lakes states.
It is the largest federal investment in Great Lakes restoration and conservation in two decades.
The GLRI completed its first five-year action plan in 2014 and is in the midst of its second plan, FY15-19.
Primary goals of the initiative are cleaning up Great Lakes areas of concern, preventing and controlling invasive species, reducing nutrient runoff that contributes to harmful/nuisance algal blooms and restoring habitat to protect native species.
John Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center and co-author of Michigan’s Blue Economy, said Michigan is the recipient of the “lion’s share” of Great Lakes Restoration funding.
“More than a sixth of that money has been spent in Michigan and a lot of that is spent in West Michigan,” Austin said.
Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute and co-author of Michigan’s Blue Economy, said the GLRI has been very effective at restoring Michigan’s waterways and any loss of funding could result in setbacks for the state.
Steinman highlighted a few West Michigan projects that have received funding.
“We’ve received a lot of money in West Michigan for Lake Macatawa and Muskegon Lake, to deal with runoff,” he said. “Those projects are about (implementing) best management practices — maybe putting in buffer strips, working with producers to take land out of production that are hot spots or introducing a better way to apply fertilizer and educational activities with farmers.”
He added a large $7.9-million project to restore hydrologic activity in the lower Muskegon River to restore habitat also is in its initial stages and further work could be impacted by the proposed cuts.
Steinman said 14 of 43 identified toxic hot spots reside in Michigan, which include Muskegon Lake and the Kalamazoo River on the west side of the state. He said Great Lakes Restoration funding has helped the state remove two locations from its list.
The federal funding serves as a way to leverage local and state dollars, often serving as a matching grant on projects.
Therefore, Steinman said if the proposed 97 percent funding cut is included in the final budget, it could put several current projects in jeopardy and definitely would impact the next five-year plan, which is being developed now.
Austin said it’s not only about the funding Michigan receives from the federal government that is on the line. He said studies have shown for every dollar spent on Great Lakes restoration projects, there is at least a return on investment of three times that.
“I helped author a study with Brookings Institution, ‘Healthy Waters, Strong Economy,’ which clearly demonstrated that every dollar you spend on Great Lakes restoration creates over $3 in new economic development, economic activity and job creation,” he said.
“It’s a huge economic engine. If Donald Trump cares about the jobs and economy for people in Michigan, this is one of the best investments you can make.”
He also said there is the short-term benefit to construction companies and other laborers hired to do the restoration work.
“Our state right now has 1 million jobs and $60 billion annually that are linked to our water and water-related work and business,” Austin added.
“The Great Lakes Restoration has meant $500 million or more for Michigan, which is at least $1.5 billion in economic development and tens of thousands of jobs.”
Steinman suggested that number might be even higher. He noted another study conducted by economist Paul Isely, associate dean for undergraduate programs in the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University, following the restoration of the south shoreline of Muskegon Lake had a 6.6 return on investment.
“With that $10 million there was a $66 million ROI, and that is just looking at the direct benefits, not the indirect benefits,” Steinman said.
Austin said he expects businesses in West Michigan to be concerned about any cuts to Great Lakes Restoration funding given that several communities in the region have been working to improve their waterways in an effort to attract more employees, residents and tourists.
“I’ve heard several times from your business leaders — and others — that one of the reasons your business community is thriving is because of quality of life. You can get out to Lake Michigan, and you have a downtown being redeveloped and the river is a big piece of that,” he said.
“This funding is part and parcel of how to support your communities in reconnecting to their waterfronts and growing your community’s economy by making it a wonderful place to live and work.”