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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump’s Great Lakes Whoppers

Falsely declaring that he has “always” been a supporter of the Great Lakes, President Donald Trump announced that he would fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative with $300 million, telling a Michigan crowd he would finally get done something they “have been trying to get for over 30 years.”

In fact, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been around since 2010, and it has been fully funded in recent years despite — not because of — Trump’s efforts.  

At a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan on Mar. 28, Trump began by announcing that he had “some breaking news.”

Trump, March 28: I support the Great Lakes. Always have. They’re beautiful. They’re big. Very deep. Record deepness, right? And I’m going to get, in honor of my friends, full funding of $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which you’ve been trying to get for over 30 years. So we’ll get it done. It’s time. It’s time. You’ve been trying to get it over 30 years. I would say it’s time, right?

Trump’s announcement was an about-face from the proposed 2020 budget he released just over two weeks ago, and which called for slashing the Great Lakes restoration budget by 90 percent. It was the third year in a row the president’s budget has proposed gutting federal funding for the program. To date, Congress has ignored those proposed cuts.

Trump is also wrong about his geography. While the Great Lakes are indeed big, they’re not exceptionally deep.

GLRI Funding

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or GLRI, began in 2010 under President Obama with the aim of cleaning up the most polluted areas of the Great Lakes. Since then, more than 4,000 projects have focused on improving water quality, restoring habitats and combating invasive species.

In its first fiscal year, Obama recommended —  and the initiative received — $475 million. After that high point, funding dropped in fiscal year 2011 to just under $300 million. And funding has stayed steady around that level ever since.

In his last two budget proposals, including the fiscal year 2020 budget released this month, Trump proposed just $30 million — the equivalent of a 90 percent cut. In his first proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, the president allotted zero funding for the program.

In a document explaining the justification for the funding shift, the Environmental Protection Agency wrote in both 2018 and 2019, “This program change reduces support for the Great Lakes Program. This returns responsibility for local government efforts to state and local entities.”

It’s important to note that a president’s budget proposal is more a symbolic statement of priorities than something Congress would vote on. In the past, Congress has chosen to ignore the White House calls to slash the GLRI budget. The last two congressionally approved budgets — which Trump signed — retained funding of about $300 million a year.

Explaining Trump’s position change on Great Lakes funding, a senior administration official told us via email, “The President trusts his agencies and staff to implement his goals and vision, but when specific issues, like the Great Lakes restoration, are presented to him he has every right to take a different approach. His announcement last night to increase his funding request for this worthy project does not change the overall goals of the budget and we will work with Congress to ensure the President’s priorities and agenda are advanced on behalf of the American people.”

We also reached out to the EPA for comment, and John Konkus, a deputy associate administrator for public affairs at EPA, replied via email, “As the President stated, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is unique both as an inter-agency initiative and because it is an international watershed. It was because of constraints in our budget that it was not fully funded at the authorized amount, but we certainly agree with and support the direction of the President as it relates to this very important program.”

No ‘Record Deepness’

Finally, Trump exaggerated the depth of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes can claim a handful of superlatives, but depth isn’t one of them.

The deepest of the five lakes, according to figures assembled by the EPA, is Lake Superior, which boasts a maximum depth of 1,332 feet. That’s well short of Oregon’s Crater Lake, which at 1,949 feet is the domestic record holder. And globally, Lake Baikal, located in Russia just north of Mongolia, is the world’s deepest lake. It stretches down some 5,300-plus feet, or more than a mile.

Update, April 1: A reader suggested that Trump might have been referring to the current water levels of the Great Lakes, which have been high recently. We asked the White House to explain what the president meant by “record deepness,” but did not receive a reply.

But even if Trump was referring to the water levels, he’s still wrong about the depth. According to data posted on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Detroit District website, none of the lakes are at record high water levels.

Lake Superior is the closest to breaking a record, but its average daily mean water level in March was still 1.8 inches below the 1986 record.

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"I support the Great Lakes. Always have … And I’m going to get … full funding of $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which you’ve been trying to get for over 30 years.”
Rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Thursday, March 28, 2019