Congress Struggles With Great Lakes Restoration

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, July 16, 2003 (ENS) - 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. glakepic

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 observers.

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 Great Lakes.

"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. northshore

Lake Superior's North Shore Palisades illustrates the natural beauty of the Great Lakes. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
"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 - by 2025.

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 comprehensive strategy.

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," Schornack said. zebra

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 source.

"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 keeping up."