Standing up Together for the Great Lakes

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Jack Darin introduces Great Lakes advocates at this morning’s press conference

You may have heard the latest bad news for the Great Lakes- the President’s proposed budget is expected to include a 97% cut to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a fund that the EPA receives and distributes to groups doing work on the ground to protect and restore our precious freshwater resource and its ecosystems. This morning, we held a press conference with the Alliance for the Great Lakes and other advocates calling on our elected officials to reject these outrageous cuts and invest in our Great Lakes and the communities across our region.

Our Director, Jack Darin, kicked off the morning with an important message to the Administration in response to the proposed cuts: “When you cut the Great Lakes, you cut jobs, you cut our health, you cut the future of an asset for our entire region” and a call to our members of Congress and all of us who depend on the Great Lakes: “Together we can stand up and do what our region has always done to show that protecting the Great Lakes should not be a partisan issue- it should be something that we all rally around and support.”

Joel Brammeier, President & CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, spoke of the bipartisan support for the GLRI, which started as a partnership between Republican and Democratic members of Congress and has grown to fund over 2,000 projects with over $2 billion and support from dozens of members from both sides of the aisle. The GLRI has funded projects and programs that have helped clean up the legacy pollution and contamination from the many years of industry in the region, which helped build our country but left many communities in danger. Joel remarked that “full funding for the GLRI is critical.”

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MWRD Commissioner Kari Steele speaks out for the Great Lakes.
Commissioner Kari Steele of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District said that as the agency that treats Chicago’s wastewater and manages flood control, “we 100% understand the importance of clean water.” The Commissioner said she was here to “support the Sierra Club and all the other organizations here today…to support the Great Lakes program and stress the importance of our primary natural resource.”

 Krista Grimm, President of the League of a Women Voters – Lake Michigan Region, spoke of the water issues our region deals with that require funding to resolve- issues like nutrient pollution and resulting algae blooms, invasive species and pollution from combined sewer overflows. These issues are cumulative, are made worse by climate change and will only get more expensive to resolve the longer we wait. Krista stressed that we can’t go back on the progress we’ve made with the GLRI, and we must continue to fix these problems and invest in our drinking water infrastructure to prevent situations like the Flint water crisis.

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Bria Foster speaks of how the GLRI supports jobs like hers

We heard stories about the impact of the GLRI, such as the restoration work it funds in the Cook County Forest Preserves. Bria Foster, a crew member with the Friends of the Forest Preserves, told of the importance of the work she and other young adults are doing with help from the fund. “We are the future and what we do is help protect the future, and that’s the environment. Without clean air and clean water, we have nothing to stand on.” Bria said that funding from the GLRI has helped her be successful in this field and she hopes that success will be shared by others like her.

Natalie Johnson, Executive Director of Save the Dunes, spoke of what the GLRI has meant for the Grand Calumet River system and how far we’ve come since the days when the river used to catch on fire. The 13-mile river system runs through the underserved communities of Hammond, Gary, and East Chicago in northwest Indiana and empties into Lake Michigan. Once plagued by industrial pollution, the GLRI has helped the river system see a total transformation. Today, the region enjoys a cleaner waterway with wildlife in areas that have been remediated and species that had been missing for over 30 years.

 Mila Marshall, a PhD candidate at University of Illinois-Chicago and research associate at their Freshwater Lab, as well as a member of the Alliance for the Great Lakes Young Professionals Council, shared some facts about the importance of Great Lakes water, which serves as 21% of the world’s supply of freshwater, 84% of North America’s surface freshwater and 100% of our drinking water in Chicago.

Mila said that “to reduce the GLRI budget by 97% is an attack on the Great Lakes economy because it would annihilate the progress we’ve made and would paralyze efforts for redeveloping what we like to call the ‘water belt’ region. This is a direct attack on our future.” Mila spoke of how clean, affordable freshwater is our lifeline to an equitable and a sustainable future and how disinvestment of this or any nature will continue to reinforce poverty. She stressed that funding cuts will destabilize the road to environmental reconciliation for current environmental justice communities in cities such as Flint, East Chicago, Gary, Benton Harbor, Detroit and Toledo and further put communities at risk of lead poisoning and other threats. Mila said that “with full funding of the GLRI, this Administration can indeed continue to revitalize the Great Lakes for welcoming industrial allies and for reducing threats to the quality of life for nearly 30 million Americans.”

Michael Mikulka, an EPA Region 5 employee and President of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, spoke of the potential cuts to EPA funding that would devastate the agency’s important work to protect human health and restore the places where we live, work and play. Michael said that much progress has been made in the Great Lakes to clean up legacy contamination and restore beneficial uses such as fishing and swimming. Budget cuts threaten this progress and the additional work needed to maintain the value of our natural resources.

These speakers gave powerful insights into the impact of the GLRI and what it would mean to lose it. Here in Chicago, we understand what the Great Lakes mean for us- clean drinking water, tourism and economic growth, places for our communities to gather, not to mention a great backdrop to our city’s skyline. But we’re not the only ones who depend on this resource, benefit from its provisions and have an impact on its health. We want to be good water neighbors and work together with our neighbors to protect the resource we all depend on. This includes other states, Canadian provinces and Native American tribes along the lakes. Now more than ever, we must combine forces to maximize our impact and achieve our shared goals.

On Wednesday, I’ll be heading to DC with some of the advocates who spoke today and many others from all seven Great Lakes states to request the support of our members of Congress in protecting our freshwater resource. We will not let the Great Lakes- which provide drinking water, jobs and recreation to millions of people- be a casualty of this Administration. Please join us in our fight for the Great Lakes by signing up to volunteer with us.

Thank you for your support. Onward!

 

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Watch the press conference:

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