Averted For Now, Federal Budget Cuts Targeted Clean Water, Fisheries, Food

Lake Huron.

Federally funded programs that protect major US watersheds and water bodies have survived the chopping block after Congress passed a $1 trillion budget last week. The reprieve might be short-lived because the budget only extends until September 2017. These popular bipartisan programs were maintained with some increased aid, after cuts were proposed that zeroed-out programs for water protection of the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Concern arose in mid-March when the Trump administration proposed its "skinny budget," in which a heavy axe was taken to most agencies' funding, including the EPA and the Department of Commerce, the latter of which oversees weather, climate and fisheries programs. The White House planned to drastically slash Commerce by 16 percent and the EPA by a massive 31 percent, wiping out resources for monitoring, coordinating and protecting these regional water bodies. If budgets define governmental priorities and values, then water and environmental protection are of little worth.

The reality is that these waters are a shared, common pool resource, which means that they must be sustained collectively.

The EPA was set to lose $427 million in its region-specific budget, while $73 million was slated to be lost for NOAA's National Sea Grant College Program (think Land Grant universities for US lakes and seas). Despite these programs' miniscule cost in comparison to the overall federal budget, they equal great returns on the health and well being of the nation's waters and economy.

The reality is that these waters are a shared, common pool resource, which means that they must be sustained collectively. Public officials in the states and regions that depend on these shared waters corrected the budget to reflect the importance of source water protection to their drinking water, economies and ecosystems. This is nothing new, and investment in source water protection programs means paying less now to avoid more expensive clean-up costs later.

Below are three examples of the how the water programs benefit the interconnections between water, food, fisheries and the surrounding economy.

Great Lakes

Economic value: $17.3 billion in annual maritime GDP to the Great Lakes Region (2014)

It's hard to downplay the huge impact the Great Lakes have on their region and on the United States, considering the five-lake system contains 20 percent of the world's surface freshwater, with 30 million people living in its environs. Essentially an inland sea, the Great Lakes' maritime economy (i.e., fishing, boat building, recreation and tourism, etc.) provides $17.3 billion to the GDP and 1.2 percent of the region's employment. The economic value of the Great Lakes ecosystem services (e.g., clean water, food production) or natural benefits haven't been fully estimated, but are likely enormous.

There are a multitude of threats to the Great Lakes' watersheds and ecosystems, which include farm and confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) runoff carrying nutrient and chemical pollution, air pollution, urban runoff, industrial discharges and invasive species (e.g., Asian carp, zebra mussels), to name just a few. Lake Erie's recurring problem, caused largely from agricultural runoff, has been especially troublesome for drinking water and recreation. Programs like the EPA's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative coordinate governmental and non-governmental partners together to protect ecosystems, while NOAA's Great Lakes Sea Grant Lab offers constant monitoring and research to assist in the effort.

Chesapeake Bay

Economic value: $130 billion annual ecosystem services and natural capital to the region (2009)

The Chesapeake Bay, one of the world's largest collection of bays and estuaries, is at the heart of the vibrant Mid-Atlantic economy. Famous for its blue crab, wild oysters and striped bass, the Bay's commercial seafood industry is significant in Maryland and Virginia. In 2009, seafood contributed $3.39 billion in sales, $890 million in income and nearly 34,000 jobs to the regional economy. Recreation and tourism are huge, with around $2 billion and 32,025 jobs supported annually in Maryland with recreational boating alone.

What's amazing about the Chesapeake Bay basin is also what makes it difficult to keep it clean. The Bay basin drains 50 major rivers and streams in a watershed that covers 64,000 square mile and includes forests, farms, urban and suburban areas, fracking wells, wastewater treatment plants and heavy industry. So much runoff has polluted the Chesapeake Bay over the years that it has caused colossal dead zones and devastated natural ecosystems and fisheries.

Because the watershed stretches from New York to Washington, DC, runs through six states and is home to 17 million people, the EPA's role as manager has been essential for Bay protection. The federal funding it receives goes towards "collaborative federalism," which means local, state and regional groups and stakeholders all have a hand in decision-making, a stated goal of EPA Administrator Pruitt. The reality is that the federal program, along with the mandated Pollution Diet, has been successful in its effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and has strong, bipartisan support.

Puget Sound

Economic value: Between $243 billion and $2.1 trillion in ecosystem services and natural capital for the entire Puget Sound basin (2008)

The Puget Sound is a watery jewel off the coast of Washington State and British Columbia, Canada. The Sound is prized for the beautiful vistas from its many islands to the Olympic Peninsula, as well as for its excellent habitat for salmon, oysters and other aquatic creatures. For Washington State, the maritime economy of commercial fishing and processing, ship building, shipping, recreation and tourism adds about $30 billion in value to the overall economy. The Puget Sound supplies 69,500 jobs directly to the maritime industry that supports and additional two jobs in addition.

With the help of the Washington Sea Grant and the Puget Sound Partnership (which includes the EPA, Washington State and the Canadian government), the ecosystem's health and services have improved. Pollution pressures flow from the 7 million people that live in the watershed region and are due to agricultural runoff, air pollution, rapid urban and suburban development and a history of heavy industry. Sea Grant's work in monitoring and measuring problems such as invasive species and pollution-spurred harmful algal blooms only costs $4 million in federal funding.

The notion that cutting water, science and environmental programs is a smart way to balance the budget is not just misguided, it's counterproductive. So much is lost with short-term thinking - taking the long view into account is the only way a productive balance can be struck.