Congress controls the purse strings, and if last year is any indication, it will rebuff the Trump administration’s effort to gut hundreds of millions of dollars in federal spending for the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Sea Grant program — though vastly different in scale — have now been targeted twice in the Trump administration’s annual budget proposals. Last year’s proposal to cut 90 percent of GLRI’s $300 million budget as well as the National Sea Grant College Program — of which Michigan receives about $1.5 million — drew widespread criticism and anxiety among those in the region who feared the Republican-controlled Congress would go along with Trump’s plan.
After broad, bipartisan support to keep the programs whole last year, the White House proposed similar spending cuts in its budget outlined in February, which officials call a “messaging document.”
However, stakeholders’ reactions are different this time.
“In the first year, there was a lot of concern,” said Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. “But we quickly saw bipartisan support, not just in the Great Lakes region but across the country, recognizing this is a natural resource. Some of that concern has been ameliorated.”
Supporters say the programs not only support Great Lakes research and education, but they also bring a return on investment.
Jim Diana, director of Michigan Sea Grant, said $2.25 million in federal, state and university funding generated $6.8 million in economic growth in 2016, particularly for the state’s commercial fisheries industry.
“We think the state gets a lot for the amount of money that’s involved,” Diana said.
He added that job performance through continuing education and ecosystem services — which quantifies the benefits of clean water and the value it brings to ecosystems — are not factored into those projections.
“It’s a conservative estimate,” Diana said.
While research remains ongoing about the economic impacts of GLRI investment, experts believe a similar story is playing out.
Steinman said investments to clean up Muskegon Lake have led to increases in property value and more recreation spending in the area, not to mention “the intangibles of community pride.”
While not specific to GLRI, a recent economic valuation study on federal stimulus funding found it had a $6 return for every $1 invested related to projects around Muskegon Lake. Again, Steinman said that’s a conservative estimate that doesn’t include multipliers or ecosystem services. While there are “very few valuation studies,” Steinman said the same principle would apply to GLRI projects.
“The importance of the GLRI has been to really move us into the 21st century,” Steinman said. “It takes us out of the foundry economy and into the blue economy. That $300 million (in GLRI funding) has been critical. … The blue-economy concept is that as we restore these systems, it basically brings people back, whether for housing or recreational purposes.”
WEST MICHIGAN IMPACT
Since GLI was first funded in 2010, Congress has allocated more than $2 billion through the program, keeping it at $300 million a year since 2011, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Steinman says about 80 percent to 90 percent of the annual budget is directed to federal agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey. About $30 million to $40 million remains for competitive funding among advocacy groups, municipalities or other local agencies.
In Muskegon, GLRI funding is part of an ongoing effort to delist Muskegon Lake as an EPA Area of Concern. The GLRI also has been used in efforts on White Lake to the north, which was delisted as an Area of Concern in 2014. Steinman said management actions on Muskegon Lake will be completed next year, with the full delisting targeted for 2020.
“We’re well on our way,” he said.
GLRI funding has been broadly applied throughout the region between the lakeshore and greater Grand Rapids. At least 42 projects totaling $42 million have been funded since 2010. These include habitat restoration, land acquisition, dam removal and removing invasive species. Project costs range from about $10,000 to $10 million.
While the GLRI follows other restoration efforts going back decades — including the Great Lakes Legacy Act — Steinman said it has been a “catalyst and helped move us over the hump and toward the goal line.”
ASSISTING SMALL TOWNS
Diana said Michigan Sea Grant, which is administered through a partnership between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, “focuses on developing coastal communities economically and ecologically.”
This plays out particularly in small towns that likely lack the resources to make community development plans themselves or to hire outside consultants. Sea Grant educators help design 15- to 20-year visions that are important for applying for state funding on projects like dredging or land acquisition. Sea Grant worked with six communities in 2017, including Pentwater in Oceana County, and Diana hopes to add more this year.
“We’ll continue to do this — it has become such a popular success,” he said.
Sea Grant effectively has “three arms,” Diana said, focused on research, education and communication. Universities can apply for about $500,000 in research funding a year through Sea Grant. On the education and communication front, Sea Grant has helped West Michigan communities advise the public on water safety and rip current advisories.
ADDRESSING ‘A HUGE NEED’
Wendy Ogilvie, director of environmental programs for the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council, said the agency is leading a three-year project awarded in June 2016 through the GLRI to address infrastructure around the Grand River, including stormwater management, non-point-source pollution runoff and educating students.
“It’s definitely been an important funding source,” Ogilvie said of GLRI.
The Metro Council also has received GLRI funding for habitat restoration and forestry projects. The program is valuable because local agencies don’t have base funding to do the projects without it, Ogilvie said.
“There’s a huge need, and obviously there are still pollutants that need to be cleaned up,” she said. “The alternative is to do nothing, and that doesn’t get you anywhere. With a more educated population, you’re going to get more bang for the buck as these projects go on.”
IS IT WORTH IT?
In the budget proposal, Trump administration officials have said the cuts are meant to reign in federal spending and force agencies to re-evaluate programs while also drawing on more local and statewide support.
Last year, the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy think tank raised questions about whether certain projects were worth the effort. The group also raised concerns about overlapping projects between state and federal agencies as well as nonprofit groups. In general, the Mackinac Center pushed for better accounting of how program dollars are spent.
That’s an idea that seems to be welcomed by Diana and Steinman, who have no problem defending the programs.
“I suppose you could pick apart anything if you wanted to. The most compelling response on the need is to look at the return on investment,” Steinman said. “The cheapest ecosystem restoration project is one you don’t need to do. Unfortunately, we have 140 years that need to be dealt with.”
Diana added that the economic value provided by the investments resonates with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Federal lawmakers “have a massive deficit they’re thinking about, they want to reduce expenditures,” Diana said. “They really want to know that things they spend money on return something. It’s not a hard sell to any congressional staff.”
While the Mackinac Center challenged environmental groups’ wholesale rejection of President Trump’s proposed cuts, support for the GLRI extends beyond the environmental community.
Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga of Holland, who represents West Michigan and serves on the House Great Lakes Task Force, said the group is “united in its support” for the GLRI in response to Trump’s proposed cuts.
“We were all very disappointed to see that the President’s budget once again fails to recognize the value of GLRI and the importance of the Lakes to our region. We look forward to working together, once again, to provide necessary funding for the health and safety of our Great Lakes,” the task force members said in a bipartisan joint statement.
Steinman says the nearly $1 billion restoration investment in the Muskegon area also has brought a “new level of confidence, hope and pride in the community.”
Planned redevelopment projects along the lake — including at the former Sappi paper mill site and B.C. Cobb coal plant — have a multiplier effect to spur additional development, Steinman said.
“These are focused on how this lake is a water resource people value, where in the past people treated it as a sewer,” he said.