- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) - A Great Lakes cleanup program that may be on the Trump administration’s chopping block has plunked money into fighting Lake Erie’s toxic algae and putting new life into Ohio’s polluted rivers.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative also has spent millions on cleaning up beaches and restoring wetlands that filter pollutants along the lake shore. In all, Ohio has received just over $200 million in federal funding from the program since 2011.

But that funding could dry up soon, according to a draft of the Environmental Protection Agency budget proposal obtained by The Associated Press.

Under the tentative plan from the Office of Management and Budget, several programs would see steep cuts and money for the Great Lakes initiative would be all but eliminated.

President Donald Trump’s budget isn’t set yet and any final plan to cut the Great Lakes money would need congressional approval. Both Republicans and Democrats from those states along the lakes are poised to fight any steep cuts.

Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said this past week that while the Great Lakes funding is important, discussions about its future should include making sure the money is spent on priority issues for the state - the big one being improving Lake Erie’s water quality.

Spending from the fund already has been shifting that way over the last few years with more money targeted toward reducing the farm field runoff that feeds the lake’s algae and building up natural areas that filter the runoff.

Some of the projects from the Great Lakes fund in Ohio:

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FARM RUNOFF

One of the keys to reducing the fertilizer runoff that helps algae flourish has been convincing farmers to change long-held practices. The Nature Conservancy of Ohio has been organizing meetings with farmers to show them the benefits of using less fertilizer along with cover crops and grass strips that reduce the phosphorus and nitrogen washing into streams and rivers. Test sites also have been set up to show farmers how these new practices work, such as reconfiguring ditches along their fields to filter rain water during big storms.

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WETLAND RESTORATION

Another focus has been on cleaning up and creating more natural areas along the lakefront and its tributaries. That’s meant removing invasive plants from places like the Mentor Marsh near of Cleveland and turning agriculture land near Toledo into wetlands and prairies. Doing that is designed to improve water quality in streams and rivers and eventually the lake. The Nature Conservancy says its projects alone have restored about 9,000 acres of coastal wetlands.

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RIVER CLEANUP

A big chunk has gone toward cleaning up polluted harbors and river mouths from Ashtabula to Toledo. About $20 million has been spent on Lorain’s Black River, an industrial dumping ground for decades. Recent projects include dredging tons of toxic sediment, stabilizing the riverbank and establishing a nesting area for herons. Mayor Chase Ritenauer says people are now kayaking and paddle boarding on the river and fish are returning, too.

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EVERYTHING ELSE

There are dozens of other projects that have been funded since 2011, from putting border collies on beaches to chase off messy geese to replacing trees destroyed by an invasive beetle. A project approved last year is looking at alternative uses for sediment dredged from Toledo’s harbor instead of dumping it in Lake Erie.

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