Funding questions swirl over future of federal Great Lakes restoration

Stateline Midwest ~ March 2013

Since 2009, an unprecedented amount of federal money has been flowing into this region to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

On top of other existing programs in place, more than $1 billion has been allocated through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — viewed at the time and now as a historic commitment by the federal government to clean up the lakes and protect them from ongoing threats such as invasive species.
But it is unclear whether similar levels of help can be expected on Great Lakes projects in the future, due to budget concerns and policy gridlock in the nation’s capital.

Since 2009, an unprecedented amount of federal money has been flowing into this region to protect and restore the Great Lakes.

On top of other existing programs in place, more than $1 billion has been allocated through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — viewed at the time and now as a historic commitment by the federal government to clean up the lakes and protect them from ongoing threats such as invasive species.
But it is unclear whether similar levels of help can be expected on Great Lakes projects in the future, due to budget concerns and policy gridlock in the nation’s capital.
The program has been operating at a level of $300 million under a continuing federal budget resolution for fiscal year 2013. 
Funding for the program has already been cut since its first-year high in FY 2010 of $475 million, and there have since been congressional attempts to reduce levels below $300 million a year.
The initiative may not be facing a fiscal cliff, Andy Buschbaum of the National Wildlife Federation wrote in February, but “it’s more like we’re sliding down a fiscal slope.”
He said regional advocacy on behalf of the initiative, along with continued bipartisan support from the Great Lakes congressional delegation, is critical to helping keep the initiative afloat during this period in the nation’s capital.
The initiative provides funding to a mix of federal agencies, states, local governments and non-governmental entities for programs that:
• prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species;
• reduce polluted runoff to improve the lakes’ near-shore health;
• protect habitat; 
• remove toxic substances from the lakes and target “Areas of Concern”; and
• measure the progress of restoration efforts.
“We are starting to see results, which is incredibly important,” Cameron Davis, the point person on the initiative for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, told legislators during a February webinar hosted by the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus.
As evidence, Davis pointed to reduced beach closings in cities such as Chicago, the protection of more than 20,000 acres of Great Lakes habitat, and the unprecedented effort to keep Asian carp out of the lakes.
Addressing the problem of toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes has received the most GLRI money — about 33 percent of the funds spent in the first three years of the program.
These pollutants are concentrated in “Areas of Concern,” parts of the Great Lakes basin identified as severely environmentally degraded. These areas all have some type of beneficial-use impairment — such as tainted drinking water, beach closings, degraded fish and wildlife populations, or the presence of contaminated sediment.
Since implementation of the GLRI, Davis said, 14 beneficial-use impairments have been removed from 11 different Areas of Concern. That is more than double the number removed in the previous 22 years.
In February, Presque Isle Bay in Pennsylvania was officially delisted as an Area of Concern. The area had been degraded due to a history of industrial and domestic wastewater contaminating the bay. It is one of only two sites on the U.S. side to have been delisted since Areas of Concern were identified in 1987. There are still 38 Areas of Concern scattered in different parts of the Great Lakes.