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Our View: Keep great news coming for Great Lakes

Encouragingly, both chambers of Congress now have stepped up for the Great Lakes in the wake of a proposal by the administration of President Donald Trump to cut funding for a federal program actually making progress in cleaning up the St. Louis River and other heavily polluted "areas of concern."

In March, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative was listed among potential federal budget cuts under Trump. The initiative's $300 million annual appropriation faced a slash to just $10 million, a whopping 97 percent reduction.

Then it got worse. In late May, the Trump administration's budget blueprint to Congress eliminated the initiative's funding altogether.

In July, however, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee restored the full $300 million. And, last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill to fund the Interior Department that also included the $300 million.

The prospects just keep improving that the initiative will continue to be around to further power Great Lakes cleanup efforts that started under the presidency of George W. Bush. With adequate and appropriate funding under President Barack Obama, the initiative has removed mercury and other contaminants from river bottoms and lake bottoms; has made water swimmable, fishable, and even drinkable again; and otherwise has turned environmental disasters into cleanup successes.

In Duluth, along the St. Louis River, the initiative has been responsible for the restoration of wild rice beds, sturgeon spawning grounds, and the habitats of piping plover and other nesting birds, among other projects.

Not so encouraging, however, are recent published opinions that the $300 million a year isn't even enough.

A report in September — received and considered by the Great Lakes Commission, which was meeting here in Duluth — estimated a backlog of needed upgrades and repairs to wastewater-treatment plants, stormwater pipes, drinking-water filtration systems, and other water-related infrastructure around the Great Lakes at a whopping $271 billion. Billion with a "b," and it included an estimated $25 billion of deferred work just in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

This week, the International Joint Commission, or IJC — the quasi-government, cross-border group charged with overseeing U.S.-Canada border-water disputes and with monitoring the health of the Great Lakes — released its own report stating that time-specific targets needed to be put in place for fixing wastewater and drinking-water systems, for reducing agricultural and urban runoff, and for eliminating toxic-pollutant releases into the lakes. This newest report noted gaps in how the U.S. and Canada are going about achieving their goals of making the Great Lakes cleaner and safer, as the News Tribune's John Myers reported.

Despite very real concerns over the possibility of federal funding cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and other departments that administer the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the IJC report also praised the "considerable progress" that is being made in cleaning up the lakes.

It's progress that demands to continue with a fully-funded initiative — or, better yet, with an initiative beefed-up by more funding. It's certainly no time to risk momentum. Political will and adequate dollars are needed to continue rebuilding, cleaning up, and caring for the needs of the Great Lakes.

Encouragingly, both chambers of Congress now seem to realize that.

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