At a campaign rally in Erie last fall, President Donald Trump diverged from his usual talking points and brought up a seemingly dull issue: sand.
“We’re going to replenish the sand to Presque Isle, do you know what Presque Isle is?” he asked the crowd. He told attendees the promise was in response to a request from U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, the Republican whose district stretches from Erie to just north of Allegheny County.
“Mike keeps calling, Mike keeps calling: ‘Sir, we want to fix up Presque Isle.’ I said, ‘Mike, what the hell is Presque Isle?’” Trump said.
Presque Isle State Park is a sandy peninsula that stretches into Lake Erie. Its beaches are a popular tourist destination, but waves erode the shoreline every year. Kelly told Trump that federal funding was needed to rebuild the beaches.
“[Trump] said, ‘I’ll tell you what, let me know how much you need,’” Kelly recalled. “I said, ‘Well, we’re going to need at least a million and a half.’ He goes, ‘That’s all?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a lot of money, buys a lot of sand.’”
The sand replenishment project is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. It’s part of a program Congress authorized in 1986 that included 55 offshore breakwaters and 50 years of beach nourishment. The breakwaters, which reduce the impact of waves on the shore, were built in 1992 and shoreline replenishment is in its 27th year.
In recent years, “[t]he high lake levels and the lack of consistent ice cover over the wintertime resulted in a lot of erosion,” said Michael Asquith, who manages the Army Corps of Engineers Presque Isle beach nourishment project. Asquith said in the past, beaches didn’t require nourishment, and that lake currents would naturally move sand along the shoreline. But harbors and other lakeshore structures interrupt that process.
“There’s areas where that sand gets hung up in the system,” he said. “So it doesn’t feed along the entire shoreline like it normally would. In a situation like [Presque Isle], a beach can get starved of [sand], and so it benefits us to supplement it.”
Asquith said the Army Corps is adding 68,000 cubic yards of sand to Presque Isle this summer. Funding for the project is typically split between Pennsylvania and the Army Corps’ federal work plan, totalling roughly $3 million. (In years where federal funding hasn’t been available the state funded what it could.)
Kelly said he emphasized to Trump how important it is to complete the project before summer tourists arrive. In years past, the beaches haven’t been replenished until after tourist season ends in the fall.
“This beach is an incredible asset to have,” Kelly said. “These people that come to visit, they don’t just come to the beach and then go in the water and leave. They buy gasoline, they stay in hotels and motels, they buy food here, they go to restaurants here, so … that economic impact is critical.”
Kelly believes his close relationship to the president helped ensure the Army Corps prioritized funding for Presque Isle this year -- as did the economic case for improving Presque Isle.
“This President is not a professional politician, he’s a professional businessman,” Kelly said. “He understands that if you have these assets, if you don’t keep up with them, they’ll eventually lose their attraction.”
Environmental groups say it’s important to give credit where credit is due, and the sand replenishes the habitat for native species. But they say in many other respects, the Trump administration has not been a champion for the Great Lakes or the environment.
“In no way shape or form can anyone spin the environmental track record of this administration as anything but abysmal and needing to change,” said Jordan Lubetkin is of the Healing Our Waters project at the Great Lakes Coalition.
He said Erie and other lakes are being harmed in multiple ways -- by things the Trump administration both is and is not doing. The Environmental Protection Agency is rolling back clean-water protections that keep pollutants out of waterways, including those that drain into the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, Lubetkin said, the administration is not addressing climate change, such as when it pulled out of the Paris climate agreement in 2017.
For the Great Lakes, Lubetkin said, climate change is already affecting weather patterns, including more heavy rains and flooding in the spring, which leads to increased runoff.
“This can be from farm fields when fertilizers and excess manure run off into ditches and streams into rivers and eventually the Great Lakes, causing this explosive growth of algae and you get harmful and toxic algal blooms,” Lubetkin said.
Toxic algal blooms can make people and wildlife sick and in some cases, create unsafe drinking water. Five years ago, an algal bloom forced the city of Toledo to warn residents away from drinking tap water. Algal blooms can hurt tourism too.
“We had a really big bloom last year on the 4th of July, on one of our most popular beaches,” said Matt Greene, park manager at Presque Isle. “So, we did have to close that one down on one of the busiest days we have.”
Standing on that same beach a year later, Kelly applauds the President’s environmental record.
“I think he has great concern for the environment,” Kelly said. “He’s very aware of it.”
Kelly acknowledged the administration’s attempts to cut other Great Lakes funding, and endorsed Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty at the time. But he said, there’s only so much money they have to work with -- so officials have to focus on projects with a quick return.