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Trump’s budget puts Hudson’s restoration at risk

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Trump’s proposed cuts to the budgets of science-based environmental agencies threaten to stall 50 years of progress restoring the Hudson River.

To make room for steep increases in military spending, steep cuts are proposed to so-called “discretionary” spending, including the budgets and staff of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

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Two of nine EPA regions would be eliminated. Maybe one of them will be EPA Region 2, where the courageous Judith Enck, as regional administrator, recently made her mark by fighting for clean drinking water in Hoosick Falls and Newburgh, by championing citizen science and by promoting “Trash Free Waters.” All these were locally driven initiatives made possible by a regional office that was responsive to the needs of this region.

Not long ago, a survey of fish in the Wallkill River found that male bass had female characteristics. Cornell University, partnered with Riverkeeper, has conducted a first-of-its-kind survey of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, pesticides and industrial compounds detectable at very low levels. We found their presence was widespread in the Hudson River Estuary. What is the effect on wildlife, or on human health, especially given that more than 100,000 people draw drinking water from the Hudson River? These are the kinds of questions that will go unanswered longer, with a proposed 94 percent cut to EPA’s budget for studying “endocrine disruptors” — those chemicals that are so chemically similar to our hormones that they may have profound effects at very low levels.

Newburgh has capable leaders who are challenged by multiple and complex crises — the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials, following a wave of fear of deportation in immigrant neighborhoods, all on top of a continuing drinking water contamination crisis. The EPA has served the city as part of its Environmental Justice initiative, which would suffer a 78 percent cut under the Trump budget.

Beach water quality monitoring conducted by state and local authorities, funded by the EPA, would be zeroed.

Essential research into protecting drinking water into the future, basic enforcement and compliance with clean water laws, public reporting of industrial air and water pollution — all of these would be cut to the bone. The Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes watersheds, our neighbors, would see restoration programs cut by over 90 percent each. The promise of comparable investments here, with the anticipated publication later this year of a Hudson River Comprehensive Restoration Plan, is undermined.

If you hear politicians talk about protecting “core” environmental protections, they are lying.

Deep cuts to the EPA could undermine the investments we make locally. The potentially historic levels of state spending proposed for clean water programs by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the NYS Legislature will be successful, to a large degree, because the investments can be paired with low-cost loans made possible by federal EPA grants. Federal Housing and Urban Development budget cuts, too, would significantly cut capacity for sewer projects; in the last year alone at least eight sewer projects critical to improving the Rondout Creek, Wallkill River, Esopus Creek, Mohawk River and other areas of the Hudson Watershed have received nearly $5 million in Community Development Block Grants, a program Trump would zero.

In addition to the federal workforce and programs with local impact that would be eliminated or decimated, many of our state’s finest employees, now dedicated to environmental protection, will lose their jobs. Many.

One-third of Department of Environmental Conservation staff devoted to protecting and restoring clean water in our state are funded by EPA grants. These grants would be cut by 30 percent in many cases, and zeroed in some cases. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, also singled out for steep cuts, funds as much as three-quarters of the jobs at the Hudson River National Estuarine Research Reserve. We’ve learned recently that 40 percent of the American shad caught by commercial fishermen in Delaware Bay spawn in the Hudson River. Research like that — to inform management there, to allow for restoration of the decimated stocks here — would be reduced. New York Sea Grant, which funds research — including some Riverkeeper supported in 2016 and 2017 — is threatened with a zero budget. The inspiring experience kids get when they drag a seine net through Hudson River shallows would be undermined with cuts to federally funded environmental education programs.

These are jobs that will be eliminated. Not lost. They will be singled out for elimination. People will be fired. Your neighbors. My colleagues and friends.

Look around you as you start your work day and imagine one in three colleagues will be fired. Maybe it will be you. Now, imagine you were already short staffed, and had been for years — the DEC Division of Water alone is down 100 staff from 25 years ago. These are real people with real skills who are devoted to protecting our water statewide – the water we drink, the water where we swim, boat and fish, and the water that sustains the rich web of life on our Blue Planet. There aren’t that many of them — enough to staff a “medium sized middle school” in the words of one among them.

It’s possible — just possible — that robustly staffed clean water agencies, working with local communities, might have prevented the drinking water crises in Newburgh and Hoosick Falls. After all, the Source Water Assessments conducted at the behest of Congress’s 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act amendments, identified industrial contamination upstream of drinking water sources in both communities as concerns. But the assessments weren’t acted on, for lack of funding. It’s possible that a robustly staffed clean water agency might have saved the Wallkill before it turned green and toxic with a harmful algal bloom that spread across 30 miles of river and persisted 60 days last summer. After all, the Clean Water Act provides a clear framework for assessing water quality, and creating enforceable restoration plans where waters aren’t safe for swimming or fishing. It’s possible that the little engines of life in New York Harbor — the creeks and embayments where herring spawn — would by now have been freed of the onslaught of billions of gallons of raw sewage and street water runoff. After all the Clean Water Act set the goal of stopping all such discharges — by 1983.

Today’s crises were created by inadequate investment over years or decades. Tomorrow’s crises will be determined today, by the investments we fail to make to protect and restore our water.

Today’s baseline was also created by investments made years and decades ago. Fifty years ago no one could have imagined that the Hudson would host the longest open water swim event in the world, and yet the 120-mile 8 Bridges Swim enters its 7th year in 2017. Even 10 years ago, only two businesses made their living by providing kayaks to the public to splash around the Hudson; now there are more than a dozen businesses, serving thousands annually. Breweries are filling old factory buildings and bringing back city centers around the state; good beer starts with clean water.

What investments are we willing to make for the next generation?

Our expectation is that when we turn on the tap, the water runs clean. Open water exerts a gravitational pull on kids – I’ve seen it in my 5-year-old and remember it in myself; our expectation is that the water they splash in won’t make them sick. Our hope is that the Hudson — awe-inspiring in its landscape, can once again produce awesome populations of fish. Our hope is that teeming fish, and the seals, whales, eagles and shorebirds that feed on them can co-exist with us, in one of the most densely populated land areas in the world.

Last Spring, Riverkeeper, the DEC and Troy collaborated to remove a tiny dam on a tiny creek in South Troy, nearly 150 miles upstream from New York Harbor. Almost immediately, river herring burst into new territory to spawn. Five months later, a New York Times headline read, “A Whale Takes Up Residence in Hudson River,” as a humpback entered the upper harbor to feed on an abundance of herring.

We’re all connected. The stream that runs through your neighborhood is drinking water for someone else downstream. The health of the whales depends on the health of your stream. You depend on those upstream.

We rely on the few people tasked with protecting those waters. It’s not easy work, and it’s often thankless. As I’ve heard it said: any jackass can kick down a barn door. It takes a carpenter to build a barn. We commit fractions of pennies on the dollar to this essential task. Trump wants to steal those pennies to build more war machines. There’s only one water.

We all — all of us — have to fight to keep it clean. Now more than ever.

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