TORONTO — A White House proposal to eliminate all funding for a program protecting the Great Lakes from environmental harm is drawing outrage and calls of resistance from politicians in Canada and the United States.
U.S. President Donald Trump's inaugural budget calls for slashing all federal funds for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program that helped finance efforts to combat invasive species, control algae blooms and clean up pollution hot spots in one of the world's largest fresh-water resources.
During former president Barack Obama's administration, the program generally got about $300 million a year. Trump's offer is zero. His spending plan urges state and local governments to shoulder responsibility for the Great Lakes instead.
Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said Friday that the Great Lakes were a priority.
U.S. President Donald Trump listens as he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 2017. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
"Canada has a long history of working collaboratively with the U.S. and invests significant resources in restoring and protecting the Great Lakes. We have done so to protect the health and economies of communities around the Great Lakes," McKenna said in a statement.
"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."
A coalition of Canadian and U.S. mayors representing communities located along the Great Lakes denounced Trump's budget proposal in stronger terms.
"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."
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which focuses solely on issues south of the border, benefited both countries equally as it pumped nearly $2 billion into preservation efforts over the past seven years, Ullrich said.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shake hands during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House on Feb. 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
The program has earned bipartisan support over the years and Ullrich's group said it hopes U.S. congress will be able to overturn the White House decision.
Since its inception in 2010, the program has consistently coughed up $250 to $300 million a year to support local governments in their preservation work, Ullrich said. The fund has helped clean up toxic hot spots throughout the Great Lakes and worked to limit nutrient run-off that can create harmful algal blooms, he said.
But Ullrich said no priority is as pressing as the effort to prevent the predatory Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes system, adding that eliminating funding for that ongoing project is a "devastating" blow.
The decision to scrap all funding for the initiative is part of a broader White House goal to slash nearly a third of the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. body that has overseen the restoration initiative.
Canadian mayor joins chorus of opposition
"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," EPA spokeswoman Julia Valentine said in a statement. "Administrator (Scott) Pruitt is committed to leading the EPA in a more effective, more focused, less costly way as we partner with states to fulfil the agency's core mission."
Ullrich predicted that some states would fight back, and early reaction from politicians of all stripes seemed to confirm his view.
"I think it makes sense for us to continue to make prudent investments in protecting and improving the Great Lakes," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told The Associated Press, adding that he would lobby the Trump administration and congressional leaders to put the money back.
Democrat and Republican congressmen and senators alike have expressed similar sentiments and emphasized the value of the Great Lakes as both an environmental and economic resource.
At least one Canadian mayor said it was important for Ottawa to resist the funding cuts.
"Morally, it's reprehensible because this is something we need to leave to future generations in good shape."
Mike Bradley of Sarnia, Ont., described the move to eliminate the Great Lakes initiative as "bringing definition to the phrase 'March madness,"' adding that a budget that invests $54 billion in the military while gutting efforts to preserve water represents a case of misplaced priorities.
He said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to change his approach to the Trump administration, calling for a shift away from amicable overtures and towards more active resistance to policies detrimental to Canada.
"I think it's time they start to stand up and push back on these issues instead of taking the 'softly softly' approach," he said. "I think it's pretty clear ... that that approach in the long-term is not going to work with a presidential bully."
Bradley said he and other Canadian mayors will continue with local efforts to preserve the Great Lakes regardless of whether funding is reinstated south of the border.
With files from The Associated Press