Puget Sound and other estuaries are facing the federal chopping block

Federal funding to restore Puget Sound and other large U.S. estuaries would be slashed by more than 90 percent under a preliminary budget proposal coming from President Trump’s administration.

Funding for Puget Sound restoration would be cut by 93 percent, from the current budget of $28 million to just $2 million, according to figures cited by the Portland Oregonian and apparently circulated by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Here’s the list.

The Great Lakes, which received a big boost in spending to $300 million in the current biennium, would be hammered down to $10 million. Chesapeake Bay, currently at $73 million, would be reduced to $5 million.

Much of this money goes for habitat protection and restoration, the kind of effort that seems to be kicked to the bottom of the priority list, at least in these early budget figures. The new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, appears to be focusing on upgrading water infrastructure, cleaning up toxic sites and reducing air and water pollution, although everything is cut deeply and details remain murky.

Pruitt has tried to reassure people that he will restore money to some programs rather than eliminate 24 percent of EPA’s entire budget.

“What we need to realize is this is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process,” Pruitt reportedly told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer this week.

So could this be one of Trump’s famous negotiating ploys of scaring people enough that they will relieved when the real numbers come out? Who can really say at this point?

U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and Denny Heck, D-Olympia, were quick to defend the Puget Sound cleanup funding, saying it is central to the health of the region, including the economy.

Clean water in Puget Sound is essential to support 3,200 shellfish jobs, which generate annual revenues of $184 million, the two said in a news release, adding that the state’s marine industry — including fishing fleets, ports and seafood processors – generates $30 billion annually.

“Puget Sound is an iconic body of water that is vital to our economy and to who we are as Washingtonians,” Kilmer said. “Unfortunately, the Trump Administration’s previewed budget proposes cutting funding to restore the Sound by 93%.

“On the heels of a speech in which President Trump committed to working for clean water and good jobs, this proposal would devastate efforts to restore shellfish beds, revitalize salmon runs and recover the Sound for future generations.,” Kilmer continued. “The federal government should be a partner in making the Sound healthy again, and as vice ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, I will fight back against this completely irresponsible proposal.”

Heck noted that Trump and Pruitt, with their backgrounds in business, should understand the costs of missed opportunities.

“When the federal government fails to invest in the health of critically important bodies of water like our Puget Sound, environmental problems become environmental disasters,” he said. “It is in our nation’s best interest to continue an adequate level of funding for Puget Sound restoration. The return on investment is strong, and the price of doing nothing is costly beyond our imagination.”

Kilmer and Heck, who co-founded the Puget Sound Recovery Caucus, said restoring shellfish beds and rebuilding salmon runs will pay off in many ways.

The early budget figures, if they can be believed, would reduce funding well beyond spending for estuaries. Major cuts listed include a 94 percent reduction in funding for environmental education, 94 percent on studies of endocrine disruption, 78 percent on environmental justice, and 69 percent on climate protection.

I would venture to say that everyone has concerns about specific programs. If nothing else, people are generally interested in their own health. But some programs are designed to address larger ecosystem issues or problems that affect specific communities.

Barack Obama’s administration began to pay more attention to toxic pollution that disproportionately harmed poor and minority communities located close to waste dumps and chemical plants. The effort to address such problems is known as environmental justice.

“Most pollution-spewing operations are within eyeshot of the backyards and kitchen windows of African American and Hispanic families, as well as those of many largely white lower-income communities,” said Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, as quoted by reporter Oliver Millman in The Guardian.

“Through this decision to zero out funding for the EPA’s environmental justice programs, the president and the administrator have sent a shameful message: The health of poor Americans is less important than that of the wealthy.”

I am sure we will see a lot of people defending specific programs over the coming months if cuts anywhere near those on the list gain traction in Congress. The question will be whether the public and our representatives can see the connections between environmental problems and the future health of our nation.

I understand that many people — perhaps majorities in some parts of the country — view the EPA as an evil agency intent on stifling business. Such people would like nothing more than to eliminate as many regulations as possible, if not rid the country of the EPA altogether.

But it is important to remember that many of our regulations didn’t come about until some kind of major health or environmental disaster had already occurred. People got angry and said they never want it to happen again. We should remember those people. And if the EPA seems to be out of control and needs to be reined in, let’s not go about killing the horse we are riding.

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