Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday warned against deep funding cuts President Donald Trump could propose to Great Lakes environmental programs, saying “dead fish just rolled in” before cleanup efforts.
Emanuel made the comments after a meeting with other mayors about water issues and as Trump is set to present a budget this week. Great Lakes Restoration Initiative money could be reduced from around $300 million to $10 million in the president’s plan. Emanuel said if Trump follows through, the cut would “roll back the environmental standards” that have helped make Lake Michigan much cleaner than when he was a boy on Chicago beaches.
“I grew up in Chicago; you used to have dead fish coming in, and you would have to go in, run into the water, dive under the dead fish, hold your breath, swim all the way 20, 30, 40, 50 feet – it tested your lungs – and then come up past that,” Emanuel said as a group of mayors from around the world looked on. “Those times when the dead fish just rolled in is over, and it shows you investing in that environmental cleanup has had a tremendous impact.”
Emanuel predicted Trump administration cuts would face stiff bipartisan opposition. “To endanger the environmental progress made over 30, 40 years, rolling those dollars back, I think they’ll face a fight, but that fight will come at the expense of both our recreation and more importantly our public health and environmental quality and sustainability of Lake Michigan and all the other Great Lakes,” Emanuel said during a news conference to mark the Urban Waterways Forum.
The meeting was attended by mayors from Europe, Asia, South America and Africa, as well as several from North American cities. Emanuel said they came away realizing they need to advocate for their water resources in the face of changes in the priorities of federal governments around the world.
Emanuel held the event at a new office tower downtown overlooking the Chicago River at the junction of the North and South branches, and he joined other mayors on a boat tour of the river later in the day despite the frigid temperatures and off-and-on snow.
Emanuel has returned repeatedly to Chicago River improvements as projects that can help him put his imprint on the look of the city. He secured federal money for extension of the downtown Riverwalk, an idea first floated by his predecessor, Mayor Richard M. Daley. And Emanuel pushed for construction of several boathouses to help promote more recreational activities on the river he often refers to as Chicago’s “backyard.”
For the development-focused mayor, cleaning and beautifying the river could have the added benefit of increasing land values and property taxes along the waterway that was long associated more with industrial pollution than with kayaking tourists.
Emanuel is taking steps to ease zoning covenants that have long protected industries in and around the riverfront Goose Island area and is moving a large city truck yard out of there. Residential developers are looking to build condos and townhouses near the water in the hip neighborhood.
Emanuel’s appearance with the mayors came as the city also announced Monday that the Driehaus Foundation and Comcast will pay architecture firms to submit models of riverfront structures for the Chicago River, and to display the designs around the city in order to promote public discussion of riverfront development guidelines.
Driehaus will kick in $60,000 and Comcast $50,000, according to Metropolitan Planning Council Vice President Josh Ellis. He said the hope is the city Department of Planning and Development will use the designs and public feedback “to update Chicago’s riverfront design guidelines, which inform all private real estate development along the rivers.”