How Trump’s Budget Could Affect Your Drinking Water

Under the Trump administration's budget released on May 23, at least three programs that ensure the safety of the nation's drinking water could be dramatically affected. The 2018 budget recommends cutting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by almost a third, a proposal that could weaken the nation's drinking water protections. Photo by Yin Bogu/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

How Trump’s Budget Could Affect Your Drinking Water

Three EPA programs vital to drinking water safety would be slashed under Trump’s proposed budget

By Jennifer Lu
InquireFirst

At least three programs that ensure the safety of the nation’s drinking water would be dramatically affected if the Trump administration succeeds in persuading Congress to cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by almost a third, as recommended in the 2018 budget it released on Tuesday.

The 31.4 percent budget reduction would eliminate the agency’s regional conservation and restoration projects, including in the Great Lakes, which supply drinking water to 30 million people.

It would also cut the EPA’s categorical grants—federal money distributed to states to help them protect their soil, air and water—by 44 percent, to $597 million. Funding for the Office of Research and Development (ORD), which provides the science that shapes water and other environmental regulations, would shrink by 48 percent, to $249 million.

Left untouched in the proposed budget are the EPA’s Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, which provide loans that water systems can use to upgrade their infrastructure.

“Drinking water in this country is extremely vulnerable,” said Thomas Burke, who directed ORD during the last two years of the Obama administration and was the agency’s science adviser. “The nation is very dependent on EPA. Drinking water is a kind of thing where, if people want to trust the water when they turn on the tap, there needs to be a partnership between the EPA, states and local communities.”

Those partnerships are laid out in the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. States are responsible for doing most of the legwork, making sure public water systems are using the best available technology to keep more than 90 regulated drinking water contaminants under the legally allowed limits. The EPA is responsible for determining what those limits should be, how best to reach them and whether to set new ones. The agency also keeps tabs on whether states adhere to these limits.

If the EPA is crippled by a lack of resources and can’t perform its essential functions, “how can we offer the American people any security that the water they’re drinking is safe?” said John O’Grady, an EPA scientist and president of the union that represents EPA employees.

The importance of the EPA’s watchdog role was apparent in December, when the EPA flagged Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection for having too few water inspectors: just one for every 149 water systems. It also pointed to an 84 percent rise in unaddressed drinking water violations over the past five years.

Pennsylvania couldn’t meet the EPA’s standards because state lawmakers had cut the DEP’s funding over the years, said David Hess, who led the DEP from 2001 to 2003. Hess now directs policy and communications for Crisci Associates, a lobbying firm.

Pennsylvania currently receives $5 million annually from one of the categorical grants threatened under the Trump budget: the public water system supervision program grant that helps states comply with drinking water standards. If Pennsylvania were to lose that federal support, Hess said, it would be “like burning a candle on both ends. You’re slowly going to get down to a program that can’t function.”

The DEP is already operating in triage mode, Hess said. “By the law of averages, if you’re not out there inspecting, if you’re not looking at water monitoring quality reports…there will be consequences. You will be able to respond to big things, like (the lead problem in) Pittsburgh, but other places may go unnoticed.”

It seems unlikely that Congress will slash the EPA’s budget as dramatically as Trump would like. When Congress passed the 2017 Omnibus Appropriations bill in early May, it ignored many of the cuts the president proposed in the March preview of his budget. Funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Chesapeake Bay estuary were maintained at 2016 levels after a wave of bipartisan outrage from state and local politicians.

But even minor cuts to the agency’s grants and research programs could weaken the nation’s drinking water protections. EPA staffing levels have declined since the late 1990s, while funding for many key programs has remained flat for years.

“We regulate the amount of pollution that a system can actually handle and be acceptable,” O’Grady said. “Without adequate support for research…how can we say how much is acceptable in the streams and air? How can you do enforcement if you don’t have a reliable standard?”

Trump’s budget almost halves funding for the Office of Research and Development, from $483 million to $249 million. The office is responsible for collecting scientific information, studying toxicity data, weighing the evidence and providing assessments that become the basis for EPA guidance on maximum contaminant levels for chemicals in drinking water.

The potential cuts come at a critical time for ORD, which is in the midst of assessing high-profile chemicals, including formaldehyde and pesticides, said Burke, the former ORD director who is now a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University.

The office is also researching the harmful algal blooms that are an increasing problem throughout the United States. An algal bloom over Lake Erie shut down Toledo, Ohio’s water treatment plant for almost three days in 2014.

ORD provides direct assistance when towns detect contaminants in their source water. In 2014, researchers and scientists at ORD determined when residents of Charleston, W. Va., could safely drink their water again after a chemical spill contaminated the Elk River, their primary water source.

Science is very much “at the heart of what safe drinking water is all about,” Burke said. “Nobody wins if we don’t understand something that we’re all exposed to and don’t have a public health response. If you remove the science from the EPA, you really remove the agency’s ability to protect public health and the environment in this country.”


Jennifer Lu is an InquireFirst intern. Her work is funded by a Larry J. Waller Investigative Reporting Fellowship from the University of Missouri and support from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing through The Brinson Foundation.

Trump’s 97 Percent Cut for Great Lakes? That Was the Good News

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The Great Lakes basin has lost more than 50% of its wetlands that are home to migrating birds and serve as a filter for sediments and pollutants. The Trump administration on Thursday released a budget proposal that would eliminate federal funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative which pays for conservation, scientific research, cleanup and monitoring projects. Photo by Fearnstock/Alamy Stock Photo

Trump’s 97 Percent Cut for Great Lakes? That Was the Good News

By Jennifer Lu
InquireFirst

About 90 civic leaders from the Great Lakes region rallied Wednesday on a snowy corner of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., their voices barely audible above the 30 mph winds. They were there to express their concerns about a Trump administration proposal to reduce funding for Great Lakes improvement projects by 97 percent.

The rally was barely over when the news began trickling in: The administration’s final budget, due to be released the next morning, wouldn’t just slash $290 million from the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative—it would cut the program entirely.

Titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” Trump’s budget would make state and local governments responsible for regional environmental projects. That would leave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to “focus on its highest national priorities,” the budget said.

“To suggest that our region is not of national significance is frankly an insult,” said Todd Ambs, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition and one of the speakers who stood in the cold. “It’s astonishing. The White House needs a geography lesson.”

Ambs had flown in from Wisconsin for Great Lakes Day, an annual event planned long before the administration’s budget plans were known. Each year, groups from the region travel to Washington to meet with legislators and share suggestions for bills and appropriations to protect their environment and support their economy.

Since 2010, almost $1.8 billion has flowed into the region through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an interagency program headed by the EPA. The money goes to cleanup, conservation, scientific research and monitoring projects.

The U.S. Coast Guard, along with other agencies in the U.S. and Canada, trained for the possibility of an oil spill in the lower Greak Lakes that would endanger the drinking water supply for millions. The Trump administration's budget proposal calls for slashing the Coast Guard's budget, a move that would impact the Great Lakes. Photo by Jim West/Alamy Live News

The administration’s plan would cut the overall budget for the EPA—the agency charged with safeguarding the nation’s air and water—by 31 percent, reducing it to $5.7 billion. That’s a little more than a quarter of the projected cost of the wall President Trump has pledged to build along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Other federal agencies and departments that provide vital services to the Great Lakes would also face dramatic reductions. The budget “zeroes out” more than $250 million in funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including NOAA’s Sea Grant programs. These grants support coastal and marine research and education at 33 universities, including four in the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes supply drinking water to 35 million people in eight states and Canada. Although they are cleaner and healthier than they were in the 1960s and ‘70s, they are still threatened by known and emerging contaminants. They are also plagued with algal blooms, which returned to Lake Erie in the late ‘90s, a result of phosphorus-rich farm runoff entering the lakes’ streams and tributaries.

“It feels as though the federal administration is really unaware of how big this issue is when they would allow for those kinds of cuts to even be documented on the budget,” said Tina Wozniak, county commissioner for Lucas County, Ohio.

Residents of Lucas County, which includes the city of Toledo, went without drinking water for three days in 2014 when their water system was overwhelmed by toxins from an algal bloom on Lake Erie. Great Lakes funding is helping them upgrade their water treatment plant, restore wetlands that slow farm runoff and clean up beaches to improve tourism.

Without federal support, this type of work could come to a “screeching halt,” said Gail Hesse, the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Water Program Director. “A 31 percent cut is pretty devastating…So what do you pick? Invasive species, restorations, water quality?”

Before Hesse joined the Wildlife Federation, she spent 32 years with the Ohio EPA. States rely largely on EPA funding to comply with the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act—regulations that are vital to public and environmental health, she said. “It’s not accurate to say that by rolling back the U.S. EPA, the states can pick up the slack.”

A 2005 study by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, a state and federal partnership, determined that $20 billion in federal and state investment was needed to restore the lakes.

“You cannot lowball the program, reduce staffing and the agency’s budget and hope that the agency will still run itself,” said Cameron Davis, a former senior advisor to former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy for the Great Lakes region. “It won’t work.”

Ambs, the Great Lakes advocate from Wisconsin, said he’ll do everything he can to save the Great Lakes.

“We are visiting literally every congressional office in the Great Lakes region to enlist support to battle cuts to GLRI and its agencies,” he said Thursday. “We’re ready, we’re charged up, we’re here to tell the story of the Great Lakes.”

That morning, Ambs had attended a Great Lakes Day breakfast meeting with members of Congress who represent the region. He said he heard only bipartisan support for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Ohio U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat whose district borders the western basin of Lake Erie where algal blooms are most severe, released a statement reminding the White House that "under the Constitution it is the Congress that holds the power of the purse. I hope my Republican colleagues on the Appropriations Committee remain committed to a collegial and cooperative process, that yields good results for the American people.”

Republican Rob Portman, a junior senator from Ohio, posted on Twitter, “I strongly oppose the president’s budget request to eliminate funding for the #GreatLakes Restoration Initiative.”

U.S. Representative Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan, tweeted that while he thinks the president’s plan “does attempt to put us on the path to fiscal responsibility,” he “remain(s) deeply concerned about proposed cuts to important domestic programs like the NIH and especially to our #GreatLakes.”

But even if Congress restores some of the funding, scientist Bradley Cardinale warns that the EPA and other agencies targeted for cuts will still suffer.

“He (Trump) has scared a lot of people,” said Cardinale, who directs the Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research, a joint NOAA-University of Michigan cooperative. “There’s going to be a mass exodus out of these agencies. There’s a brain drain and personnel and staff drain….It’s going to take decades (for those agencies) to come back up.”

Jennifer Lu is an InquireFirst intern. Her work is funded by a Larry J. Waller Investigative Reporting Fellowship from the University of Missouri and support from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing through The Brinson Foundation.

Trump Could Drain Great Lakes Cleanup Budget

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A boat travels through an algae bloom on Lake Erie near Toledo, Ohio. Photo by Aurora Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

Trump Could Drain Great Lakes Cleanup Budget

 Funding to protect drinking water for 35 million people may be cut 97 percent

By Jennifer Lu
InquireFirst

The future of the world’s largest fresh water source could be imperiled by a Trump administration proposal to cut federal funding for the restoration and protection of the Great Lakes from $300 million to just $10 million.

The Great Lakes provide drinking water to 35 million people across eight states and two Canadian provinces, including the cities of Chicago, Buffalo, Duluth, Toronto, Milwaukee and Cleveland. Tourism along the Great Lakes is a multi-billion dollar industry that supports more than 200,000 jobs.

The 97 percent cut to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an inter-agency program led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was in a proposed budget obtained by media outlets earlier this month. The Great Lakes would also be impacted by steep reductions to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

David Spangler, a Lake Erie charter boat captain, accused the administration of “throwing Lake Erie under the bus.”

The administration’s final budget is expected to go to Congress on Thursday. The EPA said in an email that it is not commenting on proposed cuts.

The Great Lakes Initiative has supported almost 3,500 projects since 2010. The funds have been used to clean up toxic sites, control invasive species, preserve native species and track environmental pollution.

The money also supports research to address the increasing number of algal blooms in the Great Lakes. The blooms feed off nutrients from farm runoff and can cover several hundred square miles, consuming the water’s oxygen and leaving behind massive dead zones. Some species produce toxins that damage the liver and nervous system, sometimes fatally, if ingested.

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Signs displaying warnings about algae were posted along Lake Erie in 2014. The lake provides drinking water to about 11 million people. Photo by Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

In 2014, a toxic bloom over Lake Erie left 400,000 residents of Toledo and Lucas County, Ohio, without drinking water for three days. The county used money from the Great Lakes Initiative to slow farm runoff by restoring nearby wetlands. It also upgraded its water treatment plant to deal with future blooms.

Politicians think money from the Great Lakes Initiative is “loaded into a rocket and launched to the moon and we never see it again” when in fact, more than half of all the projects create cleanup and restoration jobs, said Ronald Hites, a chemist at Indiana University.

Hites runs the Integrated Atmospheric Deposition Network, which has been measuring the amount of air pollution entering the Great Lakes for 25 years. His 13-person lab receives about $1 million annually from the Great Lakes Initiative.

“If we get cut by 97 percent, we’re out of business,” Hites said. “There’s no way we can do anything but maintain the old data....The Great Lakes need to be continually protected. It would be a disaster if monitoring would be suddenly stopped.”

‘Where fish go to die’

The lakes’ health has vastly improved since the 1960s, when unregulated dumping turned them into public sewers. Nutrients from human sewage encouraged algal growth that turned the waters green and lumpy, while mercury from industrial waste made the fish inedible.

The region’s pollution finally captured the public’s attention when the Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie, caught fire in 1969. Late night comic Johnny Carson called the Great Lakes “the place fish go to die.” In the 1971 edition of the Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax, the Humming-Fish commiserated over their polluted pond in the line, “I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.”

A year after the Cuyahoga burned, President Richard Nixon founded the EPA and NOAA. In 1972, he and Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a bi-national commitment to clean up and protect the lakes. That same year, the United States passed the Clean Water Act regulating pollutants discharged into water.

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Residents of Toledo, Ohio, were given bottled drinking water in August 2014, when water from Lake Erie showed high toxin levels. Photo by Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

More than 40 years of scientific research, conservation and environmental regulations have brought the Great Lakes back to life. But without constant vigilance, enforcement and support from federal agencies, scientists say the lakes’ health could quickly relapse.

Algae blooms, which had declined after regulations reduced the amount of sewage entering the lakes, came back with a vengeance in the late 1990s, triggered by phosphorus from agricultural fertilizers.

In 2015, the largest bloom to date—300 square miles—covered a portion of Lake Erie the size of New York City, scoring a 10.5 out of 10 on the algal bloom severity index. Last year, Michigan designated its shoreline along the western basin of Lake Erie “impaired” because of persistent blooms.

Newer chemicals are also being detected in the water, such as flame retardants, pharmaceutical compounds and personal care products.

The Great Lakes Fish Monitoring and Surveillance Program, which receives a little more than $1 million a year from the Great Lakes Initiative, has been screening fish for mercury and other contaminants since the 1970s. Without that data, “we wouldn’t be able to make any decisions on the Great Lakes using science," said Thomas M. Holsen, Clarkson University professor of civil and environmental engineering and a principal investigator of the Great Lakes Fish Monitoring and Surveillance Program.

Toledo residents share concerns

Tina Wozniak, a county commissioner in Lucas County, Ohio, is so concerned about Great Lakes funding that she organized a public forum in Toledo on March 9.

Until recently, Wozniak thought that algae and invasive species were the greatest threats Lake Erie faced. Now she fears that the enemy is a federal government trying to incapacitate the EPA. “We can’t afford to take steps backward,” she said.

If you’ve never visited the Great Lakes, here’s a slideshow that offers a quick tour. The Great Lakes Song, which accompanies it, is performed by musician Pat Bailey. He co-wrote it with his close friend, the late poet and author Shel Silverstein.

David Spangler, the charter boat captain who complained the Trump administration is "basically throwing Lake Erie under the bus," was among the 80 or so people who showed up for the meeting. He lost 20 percent of his business during the 2015 algal bloom, and he fears the same thing could happen again.

Spangler worries that the lakes will suffer from a proposed $1.3 billion cut to the U.S. Coast Guard. The Coast Guard inspects freight ships entering the Great Lakes to make sure invasive species—which could decimate the native fish that support Spangler’s charter boat business—aren’t stowed away on the hulls.

The Great Lakes would also be affected by the Trump administration’s proposed 17 percent cut to NOAA’s budget.

The Cooperative Institute of Limnology and Ecosystems Research at the University of Michigan depends on NOAA funding for one of its most important tasks: using genetic sequencing to determine whether algal blooms are toxic.

“We literally call Toledo to get out the charcoal filters and change the intake pipes if there’s the threat of a harmful algal bloom,” said the institute’s director, Bradley Cardinale. “If this program is stopped, cities like Toledo and Chicago are not going to get the information they need to protect their drinking water supply.”

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The Great Lakes form the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth and provide drinking water to 35 million people across eight states and two provinces of Canada. NASA image by Goddard Space Flight Center

All 28 researchers at the institute would lose their jobs if the funding were eliminated, Cardinale said. The jobs of 124 researchers shared by the university and NOAA would also be jeopardized.

Cardinale said he is angry that President Trump campaigned on the promise that he would bring back jobs to the Rust Belt, but now seems intent on slashing programs critical to the people living in the states that helped get him elected. Trump won five of the eight states that border the Great Lakes.

If the EPA is cut, Cardinale said, “we’re not going to have any of the protections that were put in place in the 70s, after Lake Erie caught on fire. The EPA exists because it protects public health. And we’re going to have a lot of public health problems if the EPA is not around.”

Correction: A sentence comparing the cost of President Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago, Fla., to his proposed budget for the Great Lakes Initiative has been removed from this story, because it used information that may not accurately reflect the cost of Trump’s trips. The sentence was based on a U.S. Government Accountability Office analysis of a four-day trip taken by President Obama in 2013 from Washington, D.C., to Chicago and Palm Beach. But presidential trips include so many variables that the GAO findings can’t automatically be applied to Trump’s visits.


Jennifer Lu is an InquireFirst intern. Her work is funded by a Larry J. Waller Investigative Reporting Fellowship from the University of Missouri and support from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing through The Brinson Foundation.