By Laina Stebbins
Capital News Service
Eliminating the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative could lead to devastating natural and economic effects on coastal Michigan communities, defenders of the program said.
President Donald Trump has proposed killing the initiative, along with the Michigan Sea Grant and nearly a third of the funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.
The possible elimination of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has compelled Michigan lawmakers, environmentalists, scientists and business owners to make a case for the program.
“It has benefited Muskegon greatly, hugely. We’ve received millions in dollars in federal funding to clean up White Lake and Muskegon Lake,” said Bob Lukens, the Muskegon County community development director.
“It’s unbelievable how much that funding has helped,” Lukens said.
Likewise, Kathy Evans, the environmental program manager for the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, argues that federal coastline restoration efforts have benefited the state on many levels.
Evans said the public has not always embraced the importance of actively working to maintain and invest in environmental health. But, she says, this changed when communities began to realize the benefits provided by the Great Lakes initiative.
The initiative was launched in 2010 with the primary goal of driving restoration and preservation efforts for the Great Lakes and its ecosystems. Part two of the plan, effective 2015 through 2019, focuses more on targeting and preventing threats to the Great Lakes (such as invasive species and algal blooms), habitat restoration, and cleanup of what are called “Great Lakes Areas of Concern” – natural areas in need of a higher degree of restoration efforts because they have been compromised by pollution.
“People are becoming much more aware of how natural resources and good water quality fit into community economic development, and that’s something that never happened before,” Evans said.
In 2011, Evans’ group commissioned a study by Grand Valley State University economist Paul Isely to determine whether environmental restoration efforts actually translate into improved prosperity for the surrounding community. In other words: Does that investment in the environment restoration come back around?
After studying economic gains that came from the federal funds invested in a restoration project on Muskegon Lake’s south shore, Isely concluded the answer is “yes.”
Isely’s study projected that the $10 million federal investment in the cleanup of Muskegon’s shoreline would generate $66 million in housing and recreational values over10 years.
A specific example in the study, Evans noted, involved “softening” the shoreline of Muskegon Lake – returning it to its natural state. A hardened shoreline has concrete and other materials added by people. The study found that removing those materials — softening the shoreline — translated to increased values not just for properties directly along the shoreline, but for many properties further inland as well.
Evans said she has seen the restoration initiative improve the quality of life, economy and environment in every area it has touched. However, she said the job is far from over.
“There’ll always be a need for maintenance,” she said. “We are truly doing something really, really important.”
In addition to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Trump’s budget proposal would eliminate Michigan Sea Grant – a collaborative program of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan that has provided the state with education, outreach and research about the Great Lakes for the past 48 years.
Sea Grant Director Jim Diana said his group is viewed around the state as “neutral brokers” of scientific information, helping Michiganders make good decisions for their communities, particularly in coastal areas.
Without Sea Grant, Diana said, the state would lose about $500,000 in research funding to study Great Lakes-related issues, as well as a valuable education and communication program with extension educators across the state.
Diana said he is “not overjoyed” by the budget proposal, but that he has met with congressional staff from 10 offices in Michigan who have assured him that representatives would fight to preserve the program.
“I’m not as worried about it as maybe you would think, because I feel like we have a lot of support that will come out in the budget hearing,” Diana said.
Diana said he is preparing information for a letter-writing campaign that Sea Grant supporters can use to influence lawmakers.