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EPA study: Work in protecting lakes has accelerated, but much more needs to be done

by Tim Anderson ~ September 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
What can $1.7 billion in federal funding do to help restore an invaluable resource in the Midwest?
Quite a bit, at least according to a recent federal study outlining the progress made during the first five years of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or GLRI.
“[It] has accelerated the improvement of Great Lakes health more than any other coordinated interagency effort in U.S. history,” says Gina McCarthy, administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
From the start, too, states have been an important partner in the initiative. For example, as of July 2014, states, local governments and tribes were the recipients of about one-third of all GLRI-funded projects. The initiative is mostly investing federal dollars in a handful of “focus areas”:
• removing toxic substances from the basin and delisting Areas of Concern;
• preventing the introduction and spread of invasive species;
• stopping nonpoint source pollution and improving nearshore health; and
• restoring or protecting wetlands and other habitat.
Projects involving Areas of Concern have received the most money, about 35 percent of the total. As the map at right shows, these environmentally degraded areas are located throughout the basin, from the St. Louis River in Minnesota and Wisconsin to part of the St. Lawrence River in far northern New York.
The AOCs were first designated in 1987, but cleanup of these “toxic hotspots” has been slow — over a 25-year period, only one area had been delisted. But a second AOC was delisted in 2013 (Presque Isle Bay in Pennsylvania), and in five other areas, the cleanup is now complete: Deer Lake and White Lake in Michigan, the Sheboygan River in Wisconsin, Waukegan Harbor in Illinois, and the Ashtabula River in Ohio.
The new EPA report also highlights other GLRI achievements. More than 100,000 acres of wetlands have been protected, restored or enhanced, for example, and no new invasive species have been established since 2009.
Under the initiative, too, the amount of farmland enrolled in agricultural conservation programs has increased by more than 70 percent in three “priority watersheds”: the Saginaw River (Michigan), Maumee River (Ohio) and Fox River (Wisconsin). The areas were prioritized because of phosphorus runoff causing high levels of harmful algae.
From the start, supporters of the GLRI have had to help the program through a fiscally turbulent period in Washington, D.C. In its first year, the GLRI received $475 million. That figure has since dropped to $300 million a year. In his proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, President Barack Obama called for another $50 million cut.
Earlier this year, 44 Great Lakes Legislative Caucus members signed on to a letter urging the U.S. Congress to prevent cuts to the GLRI.