Make The Lakes Great Again

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative restores and maintains the largest freshwater system in the world

A harmful algae bloom in the Western Basin of Lake Erie taken September 25, 2017 // Photo courtesy Aerial Associated Photography, Inc. by Zachary Haslick, Flickr

For Ron Zalesny, a plant geneticist with the U.S. Forest Service, 15 landfills within the Lake Superior and Lake Michigan watersheds are places that hold promise. Promise for a better watershed, a better understanding of the ecosystem, and ultimately, a cleaner Great Lakes region. 

From his station in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Zalesny is developing “green tools” to reduce landfill runoff and—potentially—remediate pollutants. And these tools are big. He and his team hope to plant 18,000 trees on the edges of the landfill sites by 2019. 

“What we do can have positive impacts downstream,” Zalesny said. “The biggest positive outcome is the connection to the water.”

Zalesny studies the remedial effect of these trees, while building partnerships with the landfill managers, local organizations, and nearby cities. The landfills are already following regulations, but Zalesny, the U.S. Forest Service, and political leaders in the Great Lakes regions are striving to create an even cleaner watershed. Reducing the landfill runoff with roots is just one of the many ways agencies have been trying to solve global problems surrounding the massive bodies of water. 

That’s where the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) comes into the picture. Since 2010, the GLRI has joined the forces of the Environmental Protection Agency and 15 other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to clean and sustain the watershed of the five Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.

MODIS image of the Great Lakes looking eastward, April 24, 1999 // Photo by NASA, courtesy NOAA, Flickr

The GLRI focuses the 16 agencies on global-sized goals: cleaning up toxic waste sites, halting perennial pollution problems, slowing or stopping the spread of invasive species, increasing recreational opportunities, funding research, educating residents, and sustaining the overall health of the largest freshwater system of lakes in the world.

“The GLRI supports cooperative federalism by building state and local capacity to conduct monitoring,” says Nick Vrevich, GLRI manager at the U.S. Forest Service. “It also recognizes that the primary responsibility for local ecosystem restoration rests with states and local groups.”

The research and planting of trees near landfills is just one of many projects that have received funding around the Great Lakes region. 

These lakes provide drinking water for 40 million people. They hold one-fifth of Earth’s freshwater. So it seems like everyone could agree they need protecting. But in the past, they have been treated as the best place to discard unwanted waste. 

“The Great Lakes have been on a downward trend since the 1960s,” Vrevich said. “The GLRI is helping the Great Lakes become sustainable. But there’s so much work to do.”

The heaviest lifting of that work for Vrevich and the other program managers has been targeting the “Areas of Concern,” a bureaucratic name bestowed on 43 of the worst pollution-ridden industrial dumping spots on the Great Lakes, as of the 2016 report to Congress. The St. Louis River estuary near Duluth, Minnesota, earned the designation due to years of pollutants entering its waters from the steel, shipping, and lumber industries nearby. The area recently benefited from millions of grant dollars from the GLRI, moving its restoration timeline closer, now set for completion in 2025.

Since the GLRI began focusing funds and efforts, four sites have been delisted in the U.S., as well as three in Canada. 

Sampling shoreline muck in Lake St. Clair, October 3, 2012 // Photo courtesy NOAA, Flickr

One “Area of Concern” in Michigan is near the southern tip of Lake Huron, where for years the St. Clair River ran with high levels of heavy metals, mercury, and other toxic chemicals. Now, after years of cleanup, more shoreline has been restored and animals are making their home in new habitats.

And that’s why many people were confused and frustrated in February 2017, when President Donald Trump released his 2018 budget proposal, in which the EPA was slashed more than 30 percent to $5.7 billion, the lowest budget seen since the agency’s formation in 1970. Environmental groups voiced particular concern over EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who as attorney general of Oklahoma sued the agency more than a dozen times.

One person who passionately disagreed with the proposed cut was Jennifer Caddick, a spokeswoman for Alliance for the Great Lakes. The Chicago-based nonprofit’s goal is to protect the lakes, and it has received initiative grants for projects, such as coordinating with local municipalities to fix wastewater problems that had resulted in raw sewage flotsam. 

The president’s budget proposal was released the same morning Caddick planned to meet with congressional delegates in Washington, D.C. about water quality issues. When she saw the news about the EPA budget, she also saw the GLRI had been cut entirely. The rationale was that the move would allow the EPA “to focus on its highest national priorities,” though it was not entirely clear what those priorities were. 

The Niagara Falls-sized funding plunge would have washed away the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, dropping its funding from $300 million to zilch. But as Caddick and other advocates went around speaking with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, it became clear that the proposed budget wouldn’t be followed.

“It was a good moment for all of us, because we knew there was support [of GLRI] in Congress,” Caddick said. 

In March of 2018, a bipartisan group of lawmakers restored the GLRI to full funding in an omnibus appropriations bill. One Republican lawmaker said the EPA funding of the GLRI was important because it was “an environmental protection issue.” 

In statements, most lawmakers around the region said the money going to clean the Great Lakes was the best use of tax dollars because the money often comes back to their districts. Caddick echoed their sentiments, saying that the money goes to making things “happen on the ground.”

Silver carp jumping in the Fox River in Illinois // Photo courtesy Asian Carp Regional Coordination Comittee

Silver carp jumping in the Fox River in Illinois // Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS, courtesy Asian Carp Regional Coordination Comittee, Flickr

“A large portion of the money is given out in grants to municipalities,” Caddick said. “Local governments apply for that money, and the agencies can guide it. A majority of the money goes around to specific measurable projects.”

The Brookings Institute did a study on the money from the GLRI and found that for every dollar spent on a locality, two dollars were earned in return, which went to strengthen the entire region.

“We can’t have a strong Midwest without healthy Great Lakes,” Caddick said.

Agency program managers contacted for this story said they knew the GLRI defunding was a possibility. But they said it wouldn’t mean that specific agency projects would stop—just that they would take years longer to complete. The GLRI money, they said, goes to “supplement, not supplant” the existing projects—it essentially punches the accelerator on the projects.  

“It’s the gas pedal to the restoration actions that we are implementing with our annual appropriated funds,” Vrevich said.  

One problem that needs acceleration for a solution is the advance of the bighead and silver carp through the Illinois River system. The species, originally from Asia, have decimated native fish populations by hogging food sources and inhibiting their natural fecundity. Scientists say that if they enter Lake Michigan, the Great Lake’s fish population is in danger.

Silver Carp caught in the Fox River in Illinois // Photo courtesy Asian Carp Regional Coordination, Flickr

The silver-scaled fish are one of the challenges in the forefront of Todd Turner’s mind. As the National Fish and Wildlife Service (NFWS) assistant regional director, Turner oversees many of the projects funded with GLRI money that have, so far, kept the carp from entering Lake Michigan. 

To keep the fish from entering the lake, the NFWS has partnered with states to do extensive research, eventually installing electronic barriers in the river system. They’re even experimenting with sound barriers and walls of bubbles. 

“The GLRI has helped to develop the research, and as we are getting additional dollars appropriated, we are using those to deploy it,” Turner said.

The agency has also been culling the massive amount of invasive carp in the river.

“They grow fast and they grow big,” Turner said of the fish. “In some areas [of the river] they are 90 percent of the biomass.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s paupier net was deployed to the Chicago Area Waterway System in response to the silver carp found nine miles from Lake Michigan on June 22, 2017. Here it is pictured in Calumet Harbor on June 27, 2017 // Photo courtesy Illinois DNR, Flickr

In 2017, Turner oversaw a commercial fishing enterprise in a lake adjoined to the Illinois River near Morris, Illinois. Working together with Chinese fishermen who taught them a type of herding, the group hauled out 100,000 pounds of fish—a mass of invasive bighead and silver carp—to free up the lake’s food chain for the fish native to the region: bass, walleye, sauger, and others. 

While Turner said the culling has helped, some wonder about spending millions to try to keep the fish from reaching the lake. Turner has an answer for them.

“In the U.S., on the Great Lakes, recreational fishing is a $7 billion dollar industry,” Turner said. “That’s $7 billion, with a ‘B.’ That’s not even taking into account commercial fishing or tribal fishing. So you’re spending millions to save billions.” 

Caddick agrees that cuts to the GLRI would matter for the fishing industry—but says the impact would affect everyone. 

“It absolutely would matter and it would be detrimental to the Great Lakes region,” Caddick said. “Cleaning up the Great Lakes isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. These are projects that require decades and decades of work.”

She said the initiative allows cities dealing with the intractable problems to spearhead solutions.

“GLRI has helped communities start picking at those problems,” she said, adding that it also “puts the money in local control.”  

Many federal government employees contacted by The Growler declined to comment on the GLRI budget. Some mentioned that they are used to the pendulum swings of what is proposed and what is authorized. 

So perhaps they were not surprised when the president’s budget proposal for 2019 was released in February. Did it contain funding for the initiative charged with keeping the Great Lakes clean? Not much. Just $30 million, which wouldn’t have even funded the Fish and Wildlife Service portion of the GLRI. 

This U.S. Great Lakes coastline graphic highlights exactly how much aquatic habitat is under the supervision of the organizations that make up the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative as compared to other U.S. coastlines // Illustration courtesy NOAA, Flickr

An EPA spokesperson responded to Growler requests for comment by sending a link to a video in which Pruitt expressed his desire for Congress to not follow his own EPA budget direction. 

“I think the Great Lakes Initiative represents something that is very, very good for the rest of the country,” he said during a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on April 26. “It is my belief, my conviction, that we work together to keep the funding levels consistent [with past years].”

The doublespeak had Congress members pleading to take Pruitt for a walk along the shores of the Great Lakes to show him the work completed with GLRI money. 

And representatives have pledged to ignore the proposed budget and renew the GLRI funding again. Statements released by many refer to the strong work that has been done since the initiative was first funded in 2010, and the principle of stewarding the environment for future generations. 

But perhaps it is simple enough to say that for 2019, Americans will insist on Making the Lakes Great Again.