Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — can we keep it afloat?

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

In “The state of Rockford, part three” (July 24-30 issue), Staff Writer Audrey Carpenter referred to the third report of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning (RMAP), which concerns the environment. She noted that the report states the need to protect natural areas from conversion and fragmentation when new development is built.

The Clean Water Act requires states to submit a list of all waterways threatened or impaired, since existing regulations and pollution controls may fall short of established water quality standards.

While the Rockford region encompasses four rivers, we are also impacted by what happens farther northeast — the Great Lakes. This is an environmentally crucial area that has faced many challenges over the decades. There is a plan to protect it, but now the plan itself is endangered by a Republican-controlled congressional panel that recently voted to cut off funding by 80 percent. As the Chicago Sun-Times asked in an editorial dated July 30, 2013, “What kind of Congress gives farmers money whether they farm or not, but sees little need to protect precious drinking water for 30 million people?”

The editorial noted that “since 2005, when environmentalists and others laid out a $20 billion plan to restore the Great Lakes, progress has been made … with the help of the GLRI and other programs, 575,000 cubic yards of toxic mud have been removed from the Grand Calumet River … [but] Stopping such work now on Great Lakes problems that have been building up for decades will only make it more costly in the end.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Established in 2009, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is the largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades. A task force of 11 federal agencies developed an action plan for fiscal years 2010-2014, addressing five urgent issues:

1. Cleaning up toxics and areas of concern;

2. Combating invasive species;

3. Promoting nearshore health by protecting watersheds from polluted run-off;

4. Restoring wetlands and other habitats; and

5. Tracking progress and working with strategic partners.

With citizen input, three key priorities were set to guide restoration for 2012 and 2013:

1. Cleaning up Areas of Concern;

2. Reducing nutrients entering the Lakes, and

3. Preventing the introduction of new invasive species

As part of the GLRI Action Plan, in 2011, the Task Force committed to work with states and other partners to ensure that all management actions necessary for delisting five Areas of Concern would take place by the end of FY 2014.

The GLRI Action Plan identifies five major focus areas:

1. Toxic Substances and Areas of Concern — includes pollution prevention and cleanup of the most polluted areas in the Great Lakes

2. Invasive Species — includes instituting a “zero tolerance policy” toward new invasions, including preventing the establishment of self-sustaining populations of invasive species such as Asian carp

3. Nearshore Health and Nonpoint Source Pollution — includes a targeted geographic focus on high-priority watersheds and polluted run-off reductions from urban, suburban and agricultural sources

4. Habitat and Wildlife Protection and Restoration — includes bringing wetlands and other habitat back to life, and the first comprehensive assessment of the entire 530,000 acres of Great Lakes coastal wetlands to target restoration and protection efforts using the best science

5. Accountability, Education, Monitoring, Evaluation, Communication and Partnerships — includes the implementation of goal- and results-based accountability measures, learning initiatives, outreach and strategic partnerships

July 31, the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations was set to consider a bill that would cut 80 percent from Great Lakes funding. An appropriations subcommittee released a draft of the bill July 22 that covered funding for the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Forest Service, and other agencies.

The proposed bill cuts funding of GLRI from $285 million to just $60 million in 2013. Though initially funded at $475 million in 2009, the funding fell to about $300 million in 2010-12. Then, because of sequestration cuts, the budget fell again to $285 million.

The cuts were opposed by Democratic Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Stabenow released a statement citing the need to clean up Little Traverse Bay and combat invasive species such as Asian carp, while Levin pointed out the impact initiative funds have on federal programs, such as the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery, which needs Great Lakes Restoration funding when the budget is tight. Levin called the 80 percent cut “irresponsible” and said that if the cuts stand, it would be “a huge setback for the Great Lakes and the people of Michigan.”

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported earlier, “this is not just an issue for environmentalists. Thirty million people rely on the lakes for their drinking water, jobs, public health and way of life. Tourism and fishing industries need clean water, as do the thousands of communities that draw their water from the lakes. Milwaukee’s cryptosporidium outbreak 20 years ago killed at least 69 and sickened about 403,000 people.”

Can the funds be restored?

Aug. 1, the Detroit Free Press reported that a Republican-led U.S. House committee largely reinstated the GLRI funding. Todd Ambs, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, warned that, if allowed to stand, the cut would “eviscerate” the program. But even as this was going on, word came that the cut might be short-lived, and Aug. 1, the full Appropriations Committee agreed to provide $210 million for GLRI, on an amendment proposed by Reps. David Joyce (R-Ohio) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.).

Aug. 2, The Plain Dealer ran an editorial about a bipartisan deal that would keep the GLRI afloat. U.S. Rep. David Joyce had been criticized the week before when he appeared to cave in to those who wanted to cut the spending bill that gutted the initiative to $60 million in 2014. But he also added that he would be back before the House Appropriations Committee July 30 with an amendment to restore some of the lost funds.

Wednesday, July 31, the bipartisan committee added the $150 million for the program aimed at environmental and invasive threats to the Great Lakes. Joyce said he got the dollars restored by extending a federal program that would generate $150 million in helium sales in 2014.

Although the total funding is now at $210 million — less than half the original $475 million authorized by President Barack Obama, it is an encouraging sign that there is a serious commitment to continue the cleanup and restoration of the Great Lakes.

Approved GLRI grants for Great Lakes projects

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Great Lakes Basin Habitat Partnership have announced the approval of nearly $400,000 in grants to support on-the-ground fish habitat work in the Great Lakes region under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the National Fish Habitat Partnership. These projects include:

Michigan: Trout Unlimited, $27,128 to restore stream habitat in Cedar Creek in the Rogue River Watershed; The Conservation Resource Alliance, $65,000 for the Little Manistee River Channel Restoration Project; The Ionia Conservation District, $75,000 to restore the Grand River Restoration at Lyons; The Conservation Resource Alliance, $37,437 for the Northern Michigan Regional In-Stream Habitat Initiative.

Ohio: The Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation District, $74,000 to restore hydrologic connectivity and fish passage at the Toussaint Marsh in the Maumee Area of Concern.

Minnesota: The Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, $43,050 to restore fish passage on Sawmill Creek, a designated trout stream.

Wisconsin: The Ashland County Land and Water Conservation Department, $30,000 to restore brook trout habitat in City Creek, a tributary to Devil’s Creek, a class 1 trout stream and designated state fishery area in the Upper Bad River watershed of Lake Superior.

New York: The Erie County Soil and Water Conservation District, $42,000 to improve habitat in Spring Brook, a highly fertile tributary to Cattaraugus Creek in the Lake Erie basin.

For more about U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service activities related specifically to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, visit

From the Sept. 11-17, 2013, issue

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