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Mayors unite to warn of cuts ‘devastating’ to water cleanup

Dallas Mayor Michael S. Rawlings (left), New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel walk in the lobby of 444 W. Lake St. after a morning session of the Urban Waterways Forum, which brought together mayors or other local officials from 17 cities around the globe. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday joined forces with the mayor of Montreal to warn of the “devastating” environmental impact of President Donald Trump’s proposal to gut funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

After hosting mayors and other representatives from 17 cities in 11 different countries at an Urban Waterways Forum in Chicago, Emanuel argued that the proposal to reduce annual funding from “north of $300 million” to $10 million threatens a return to the ugly days epitomized by his childhood swims in Lake Michigan.

“You’d have to run into the water, dive under the dead fish, hold your breath, swim all the way 20, 30, 40, 50 feet [in a way that] tested your lungs, and then come up past that,” Emanuel recalled.

“Those times where the dead fish just rolled in are over. It shows you that investing in that environmental cleanup has had a tremendous impact. In the same way that, we’re even having a discussion about swimming in a [Chicago] river that used to be dying and has now been reborn.”

Emanuel warned that the president’s proposal to “roll back all of the environmental standards” that improved the quality of Chicago’s drinking water would run into a buzz saw of bipartisan opposition.

“Taking that down to $10 million would be devastating for the environmental aspirations, the recreational aspirations that we have specifically around the Asian carp, but other efforts” as well, the mayor said.

“Making that cut would be devastating given that 20 percent of the fresh water that exists in the United States is on the Great Lakes. It would have irreparable damage. . . . Lake Michigan is our Yellowstone. That is our Grand Canyon. We have to treat it with that same type of respect and investment in the future. It’s not just something that’s beautiful to look at. It’s the lifeblood of our city.”

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre referred to the gathering of mayors from around the world as a “formidable new force” and a “political counter-balance.” It serves notice that “cities matter,” he said.

“We’re asking the government of the United States to reconsider the budget cut regarding the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River,” said Coderre, president of the Alliance of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.

“Last year, $300 million was due for the sake of our fresh water. And now they say that they will cut back to $10 million. It’s a disgrace. . . . To protect our water, to protect an enhancing quality of life, get used to us.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings talked about his own city’s internal struggles with waterfront development.

“Waters can unite or divide. In our city, they divide between the haves and the have-nots. And we’re working on a project to try to bring our city together through waterways,” Rawlings said.

“But I will tell you, these things cost money,” he said. “And it is imperative that we leverage our global economy — the money that’s sitting on the side, the vast amount of capital that’s there — against long-term, moneymaking wealth projects in our cities.”

Buffalo, New York, Mayor Byron Brown said there’s a reason he chose to attend the Urban Waterways conference in snowy Chicago over the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

“Water is life. Water is economic development,” Brown said.

“A lot of best practices were discussed today. And I will go back to the city of Buffalo with a lot of ideas for how we can move the economic development that we’re seeing in our city forward along water-dependent and water-involved uses.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (third from right) joined mayors and other officials from 17 cities at the Urban Waterways Forum on Monday. | Andrea Salcedo/For the Sun-Times

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo noted that all cities in the world are built close to the sea or near rivers.

“We shared today what we need to do together to have clean water. It’s very important because, we don’t have life if we don’t have water,” Hidalgo said.

More than 40 years ago, former Mayor Richard J. Daley dreamed of a recreational riverfront where the water was so clean Chicagoans would fish in the river.

Daley’s son took several major steps toward fulfilling his father’s dream, with an assist from the Deep Tunnel Project.

In 1998, former Mayor Richard M. Daley released a comprehensive plan for the Chicago River that pinpointed locations for river trails and parks. It also established a 30-foot setback requirement for new riverfront development.

Two years later, Daley turned Chicago into a Midwest version of Venice by bringing serenading gondoliers to the river. He also used the $200 million reconstruction of crumbling Wacker Drive to improve pedestrian access to the river.

Daley only dreamed of completing the downtown riverwalk. But Emanuel made the dream a reality after securing a 35-year, $99 million federal loan.

On Monday, Emanuel announced that a handful of architectural firms with experience in designing riverfronts, parks and public spaces are being asked to develop “design concepts” that will help the city update those riverfront development guidelines.

The Chicago Urban River Edges Ideas Lab is being bankrolled by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and Comcast. The city’s Department and Planning and Development and the Metropolitan Planning Council are overseeing the project.