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Gov. Walker to oppose President Trump over elimination of funding for Great Lakes restoration

MILWAUKEE -- In a rare split, Gov. Scott Walker said he would fight against President Donald Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which Milwaukee-area environmentalists said had been the catalyst for numerous local cleanup projects.

Great Lakes cleanup and protection is not among President Trump’s “highest national priorities,” according to a budget document released by the White House on Thursday. His budget would eliminate the program, which receives $300 million in annual federal funding.

"It makes sense for us to continue to make prudent investments in protecting and improving the Great Lakes," Walker told the Associated Press. "It's one of those where it's a combination of quality of life, certainly in terms of access to the greatest fresh water supply in the world but also it's an economic impact. Commercial fishing, tourism, so many of those things tie in to a healthy and vibrant Great Lakes system."

The restoration program has invested $331 million in 416 Wisconsin projects, according to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin's office. The projects include preventing invasive Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes and cleaning up decades-old pollution.

A multi-year, $25 million project led to the removal of PCB and petroleum contaminants from the Milwaukee River near Lincoln Park in Glendale.

"It really just improves the community overall," said Jennifer Bolger Breceda, executive director of the environmental group Milwaukee Riverkeeper. She said the federal funding was "a big help."

President Trump's budget would leave it up to states and local governments to fund such cleanup efforts in the future. The budget still needs congressional approval before the changes could take effect.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said, without the federal funding, local governments would be unable to pick up the slack for restoration efforts.

"I’m hoping to see that, as one of many things, change in the federal budget," Abele said. "The reason we have the Great Lakes restoration fund at $300 million is because the 87 million people who live around the Great Lakes need fresh water, not water with big algae blooms."

Abele said he hoped Republicans and Democrats would work together to get the funding restored.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican, did not take a position on the Great Lakes Restoration when asked about the issue on Thursday. Instead, Johnson praised the president's budget and, in an emailed statement, said "no two people will agree on every program cut or expansion."

Val Klump, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences, predicted that the cuts would have long-lasting impacts.

"To me, it'e very shortsighted," Klump said. "When you think about the great lakes restoration initiative, what essentially it was doing was curing the ills of the past — the mistakes we had made, contamination we had allowed to occur

Eliminating federal funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and other regional environmental efforts in other parts of the country would save $427 million, the budget document indicates.