Great Lakes Restoration: Is a New Emphasis Needed?

Almost two decades ago, a chorus of lawmakers and interest groups called on Congress and the president to invest federal money in restoring the health of the Great Lakes. Pointing to large sums appropriated by Congress to restore the Florida Everglades, they argued that the Great Lakes were at least as important to the nation. In 2009, newly elected President Barack Obama put Great Lakes restoration money in his first proposed budget, and Congress has approved such funding every year since.

Annual federal Great Lakes funding has averaged more than $300 million during that time, totaling more than $3.8 billion. The Great Lakes states and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are now considering how to spend the largest single sum of federal Great Lakes restoration money yet—$1 billion authorized as part of the infrastructure legislation signed by President Joe Biden last fall.

The restoration program has enjoyed the support of both Republicans and Democrats. When former President Trump proposed a 97-percent cut in the program in 2017, the outcry from both sides of the aisle caused him to flip and restore the money.

The more than 5,400 projects funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) have done considerable good, especially in speeding progress toward cleaning up dozens of toxic hotspots in bays and harbors. Even so, completing the job of restoring these areas could take another decade or more.

The $1 billion infusion of federal GLRI funding this year provides an important opportunity to take stock of what has been accomplished, what remains to be done, and whether the funding is being used effectively.

There’s plenty of praise, but there are also multiple criticisms of the federal GLRI. Some say restoration isn’t enough—that high-quality waters like those of Lake Superior should be protected from deterioration. Advocates also find fault with the failure of GLRI funding to make a dent in massive algae blooms in western Lake Erie through funding of incentives to farmers. Others say too much of the funding is spent on research.

From FLOW’s perspective, GLRI funding should be spent on projects similar to those that have led to proven results—and steered away from funding that has proven ineffective. The Lake Erie example is a good one, and unfortunately, Michigan is also lavishing money on unsuccessful agricultural incentives to reduce the state’s phosphorus pollution of Lake Erie. Funding can only go so far. Sometimes enforcement of environmental laws is necessary. Lake Erie needs more than money can provide.

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