Struggles With Great Lakes Restoration
By J.R. Pegg
Environmental News Service
WASHINGTON, DC, - A patchwork of 181 federal and 68 state
programs spanning 10 agencies in eight states aims to
restore the ecological health of the Great Lakes, but
this massive effort is failing for lack of resources and
a clear overarching strategy, witnesses told a Senate
panel today. And although bipartisan legislation aims
to change this and to provide $6 billion in funding for
the Great Lakes, those involved in restoration efforts
have heard such promises before.
"For at least the past decade, there has been a
lack of funding for even the most basic protection and
restoration efforts like monitoring and cleanup,"
said Margaret Wooster, executive director of Great Lakes
United, an international coalition dedicated to preserving
and restoring the Great Lakes ecosystem.
Speaking at a hearing of a Senate Governmental Affairs
Subcommittee, Wooster noted that the Congress passed the
Great Lakes Legacy Act last year authorizing $51 million
annually to clean up contaminated sediment in the Great
Lakes. But proposed funding, Wooster says, is only about
one third of that total.
"We need a dedicated revenue stream over a period
of at least ten years sufficient to complete the job of
sediment cleanup," Wooster said. "We have the
largest freshwater ecosystem in the world and we do not
have investment nearly commensurate with its importance."
And sediment pollutant is by no means the only environmental
threat to the Great Lakes, which are besieged by invasive
species and pollution from urban and agricultural runoff,
including raw sewage, as well as a myriad of air pollution
from vehicles and industry.
The Great Lakes cover 94,000 square miles and hold some
20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. (Photo
courtesy Michigan Tech University)
A report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative
arm of the U.S. Congress, determined that more than $3.6
billion has been spent on Great Lakes restoration between
1991 and 2001 - $2.2 billion by the federal government
and $1.4 billion by the states.
The GAO found that there is no overarching strategy for
the patchwork of federal and state restoration efforts,
no clear authority to set priorities, and no agreement
on indicators to measure the health of the ecosystem or
the progress made to restore it.
"I do not know which is worse - that GAO came to
these conclusions or that I have not found anyone who
is surprised by them," said Subcommittee Chairman
George Voinovich, an Ohio Republican.
Voinovich has thrown his weight behind a Senate bill
introduced Monday by Senators Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican,
and Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat.
Their bill - "The Great Lakes Environmental Restoration
Act" - would provide $6 billion over 10 years in
Great Lakes ecosystem restoration funding through competitive
grants in addition to existing federal programs.
It would set up a council to coordinate and monitor existing
federal efforts as well as an advisory board to determine
priority issues for the $600 million in annual grants.
The advisory board would be led by the region's governors
and comprised of Great Lakes mayors and local officials,
and federal agencies, along with Native American tribes,
environmentalists, industry representatives, and Canadian
Today's witnesses generally agreed with the principles
laid out in the bill, but their testimony outlined the
enormous effort required for progress on restoring the
"The lakes are still threatened and getting worse
on many environmental fronts," said John Stephenson,
director of Natural Resources and Environment Issues at
GAO. "Raw sewage is still be dumped into the lakes,
fish are contaminated with pollutants such as mercury
and PCB making them unsafe to eat, and beach closings
have increased drastically in recent years to more than
900 in 2002 on Lake Michigan alone."
The stakes fueling the effort to improve and protect
the Great Lakes are heightened by its pivotal role in
the economy and public health of communities within its
watershed. The lakes are an economic engine for the region
and contain 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water.
The Great Lakes provide drinking water for 40 million
people in the United States and Canada.
Creating a comprehensive restoration plan and common
monitoring indicators have proven extremely difficult
because the Great Lakes are in reality a range of ecosystems
with a large number of stakeholders.
The GAO believes that the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) - through its Great Lakes National Program
Office (GLNPO) - has the authority under the Clean Water
Act to be the lead U.S. agency on restoration efforts,
but the agency says this is unclear.
Lake Superior's North Shore Palisades illustrates the
natural beauty of the Great Lakes. (Photo courtesy U.S.
"With all due respect to GAO, they may believe the
authority resides with GLNPO right now to do what they
think needs to be done, but unfortunately our sister agencies
do not seem to agree with that," said Thomas Skinner,
Region V Administrator for the EPA. "We are glad
to take on that mantle of responsibility, but if that
is supposed to be our responsibility some clarification
may be necessary."
Skinner says that the EPA released a Great Lakes restoration
plan last year that is "groundbreaking and includes
major objectives that are both measurable and time phased."
He told the subcommittee that the plan involved ten federal
agencies, the eight Great Lakes states as well as tribal
authorities and aims to clean up all of the ecosystem's
31 polluted harbors - also know as areas of concern -
The EPA's plan - and others - may lay out worthy and
ambitious goals, critics say but they have no teeth or
money to support achieving them.
"There are no formal interagency agreements to implement
any of these strategies," Stephenson said.
It is not just the GAO that believes the Great Lakes
restoration effort is poorly coordinated and lacking a
Both Canada's GAO counterpart and the International Joint
Commission (IJC), which is the U.S. and Canadian body
that oversees border water issues, have come to the same
conclusion, IJC U.S. Section Chairman Dennis Schornack
told the Senate panel today.
Shornack say that the current disorganization and lack
of common indicators makes the assessment of the restoration
effort's progress "virtually impossible."
GLNPO has done a good job coordinating efforts within
the EPA, Schornack said, but it "not have the power,
budget or reach to direct programs over multiple federal
agencies and multiple layers of government."
The answer to the problems of coordination and strategy
lies with the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, he
said. First signed in 1972, the agreement expresses the
commitment of both nations to "restore and maintain
the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the
Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem."
It calls for government review every six years, but was
last updated in 1987 - the year the two nations agreed
on 43 areas of concern that contained contaminated sediment,
inadequately treated wastewater, non point source pollution,
inland contaminated sites or degraded habitat.
So far only two areas - both in Canada - have been removed
from the list.
Reviewing and possibly revising the agreement could breathe
new life into it, Schornack said, and it would benefit
from Senate ratification as an official U.S. treaty.
"The agreement is a gentlemen's handshake with moral
authority, but not with the legal authority of a treaty,"
The Great Lakes has a rising problem with invasive species
that affects the nation as a whole - first found in the
Great Lakes in 1988, the zebra mussel is now in the waters
of some 20 U.S. states. (Photo courtesy University of
Wisconsin Sea Grant)
Funding, however, was never far from the discussion today
and Wooster noted that IJC estimates it will cost some
$7.4 billion just to clean up 31 U.S. areas of concern.
"If we are not going to invest the money once we
have identified the problem, then we will have a wonderful
unread report when this is all over instead of an action
plan on how to do something," added Illinois Senator
Richard Durbin, a Democrat.
It is not even clear to some local communities where
to go to get funding for Great Lakes environmental assessments,
Illinois State Senator Susan Garrett told the subcommittee.
Garret, a Democrat, explained that her district, which
borders Lake Michigan, has been bereft with beach closings
because of unsafe E.coli bacteria levels, but has had
trouble obtaining expert help and the $25,000 needed for
the range of testing needed to identify the pollution
"I was not sure who to reach out to," Garret
said. "In some cases it was a struggle when I did
reach out. There is resistance to this because no one
community wants to admit that there may be human sewage
from their community going into the lake."
Garret said that this resistance could be lessened if
funds were available to help communities create long term
solutions to pollution problems such as sewage discharge
and she believes the Senate bill is a good first step.
There is similar bipartisan legislation in the House
that would provide $4 billion for the Great Lakes and
there appears to be momentum to get some legislation passed
this year, despite Tuesday's announcement that the U.S.
federal budget faces record deficits.
"This is a national treasure we have to preserve
and enhance and we have a moral obligation to do that,"
said DeWine. "We have frankly waited long enough
to turn the talk into action. For all the good work we
have done in the past, the sad fact is that we are not