Decades of languishing industrial pollution, combined with emerging threats like invasive species and a spike in new chemical compounds known as endocrine disrupters, have rendered large sections of the Great Lakes inhospitable to both humans and wildlife.
Yet years of accumulated knowledge on such problems have not translated into real solutions for the lakes, whose stature as a national and even global source of freshwater has grown in recent years as climate change and other environmental stresses threaten to dry up freshwater resources in other regions.
Recognizing that the clock is ticking on the lakes' recovery prospects, U.S. EPA is rolling out a new package of restoration programs that could begin shifting the Great Lakes back toward ecological health. The program, known as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, is backed by a $475 million pledge from the White House and the House of Representatives, which approved full funding for the program in June.
If the Senate follows suit, EPA officials say the government will take its first steps toward implementing the broader "Great Lakes Multi-Year Restoration Action Plan," which lays out the highest-priority restoration goals between 2010 and 2014.
"This will allow us to really jump-start the effort, to get us started on projects that have been on hold for a long time," said Gary Gulezian, director of EPA's Great Lakes National Programs Office, based in Chicago. "There has been a tremendous amount of planning going on, and a tremendous amount of science that supports the goals we've set for the lakes. Now what we're saying is, 'Let's get going.'"
For much of July and early August, EPA officials barnstormed Great Lakes ports -- from Chicago and Milwaukee to Erie and Duluth -- to sell that message to regional and local stakeholders, many of whom have grown wary of government promises to address the lakes' declining health.
The last stop, on Minnesota's Lake Superior shoreline, brought the usual mix of public enthusiasm and skepticism, including pointed criticism from a member of the Lake Superior Chippawa tribes, who excoriated the federal government for allowing the tribe's cultural, spiritual and economic life source to become poisoned with chemicals, fertilizers and sewage.
But EPA officials, as well as other key figures in setting Great Lakes restoration goals, said the federal government and its state and private-sector partners are uniquely positioned under the Obama administration to make progress toward improving the lakes' condition, even if the full $20 billion needed for total restoration remains elusive.
Cam Davis, the Obama administration's recently appointed senior adviser for Great Lakes restoration, called the program a top priority for EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, adding that the more than $400 million in new funds would build upon existing programs.
"We've got the three P's -- political leadership, policies and we've got the pecuniary," Davis said of the Obama administration's strategy.
Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, whose members include the eight Great Lakes states and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, noted that the bump in restoration funding was a campaign promise by candidate Obama. "Now we have to demonstrate that we're capable of making progress, that we're capable of spending this money efficiently and effectively," he said.
Indeed, the president's home city and state are poised to reap the benefits Great Lakes restoration. The Chicago Department of Water Management draws more than 365 billion gallons of Lake Michigan water each year to meet drinking water needs for the city and its surrounding suburbs, according to the city's annual water report.
Legacy of pollution
But the lakes' problems extend far beyond the Chicago shoreline. EPA has designated 31 "areas of concern" within the U.S. portion of the basin -- places where conditions have deteriorated enough that authorities have placed restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, dredging activities and water consumption. The greatest concentration of such areas are along the industrial corridors of Lake Erie and portions of Lake Michigan, where discharges of industrial waste, sewage and other toxic sludge were standard practice for much of the 20th century.
Ohio's Cuyahoga River, for example, received international attention in 1969 when its thick accumulation of oil and industrial waste caught fire -- it was actually the 13th river fire since the Civil War. EPA's predecessor, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration, noted after the 1969 fire: "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes."
Today, the Cuyahoga, like dozens of other Great Lakes drainages, is much improved. But sediments in many areas remain choked with hazardous substances such as PCBs, mercury and dioxin. Meanwhile, others have emerged, including nutrient shocks from stormwater runoff, sedimentation caused by streambank erosion, atmospheric deposition of heavy metals like mercury from coal-fired power plants, and sewer system overflows caused by both heavy rains and bypasses around wastewater treatment plants.
EPA hopes its new funding will quickly make a dent in some of the most pressing threats, in part by stripping much the red tape off the program. For example, none of the $475 million proposed in fiscal 2010 will go toward large-scale infrastructure projects that require years of planning and can soak up hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money before a single day's work is done in the field.
EPA will also streamline the allocation of funds to project partners by holding all restoration funds in a single account, rather than having Congress parcel out funding to multiple agencies whose priorities may change over time. "It's our job to get those dollars into the hands of the people who know how to get these projects under way," EPA's Gulezian said.
To that end, EPA has established five focus areas for the first round of projects, which the agency hopes to have under way by next year. They are:
- Toxic substances, particularly in the agency's geographically fixed "areas of concern."
- Invasive species.
- Non-point source pollution and the health of nearshore environments.
- Wildlife and habitat restoration.
- Program administration, including accountability, monitoring and evaluation.
While the federal government will carry most of the program's administrative and financial burden, the bulk of the ground work will fall to state and local agencies, as well as tribes, nonprofit groups, universities and private firms that will competitively bid for project work. And unique among projects of this size and scale, the federal government will not require states and local governments to provide matching funds to win contracts.
"Our intent is to minimize non-federal matching grant requirements," said Gulezian. "Where we've got flexibility, we want to be able to exert that."
Many of EPA's prospective restoration partners, including state and local governments and nonprofit groups, say the "no federal match" mechanism could be the key to moving the restoration program forward.
Fierce competition, limited funds
"I think it's a downpayment on the commitment that the president made during the campaign," said Ken DeBeaussaert, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Office of the Great Lakes.
In fact, Michigan since 2005 has been building the foundation for what officials hope will be the first of several years of government requests for proposals to complete hundreds of millions of dollars in restoration projects.
DeBeaussaert said Michigan will seek first to restore its 14 EPA-designated areas of concern, including some of the lakes' most contaminated industrial sites, as well as restoring wetlands that keep pollution from reaching the lakes in the first place.
In neighboring Wisconsin, similar plans are taking shape.
The Wisconsin Great Lakes Strategy was created to direct money to projects that would do the most good in the areas with the most need and not simply to the loudest shouters, said Cheryl Nenn, interim head of the nonprofit Milwaukee RiverKeeper.
Still, Nenn conceded, some projects are more ready to go than others, and shovel-readiness will have some bearing on which areas get priority treatment.
For some of the lakes' most pressing problems, however, geography is less important than strong federal policies aimed at reducing basin-wide problems such as invasive species.
DeBeaussaert noted that Michigan toughened its regulations on ballast water discharges from oceangoing vessels with the hope of stopping the spread of exotics from entering state waters. But he acknowledges some of the most persistent species -- such as quagga mussels and Asian carp -- do not stop at state lines.
"Ultimately, to be more effective, we need to a strong federal approach," he said.
Among those attending last week's public meeting on Minnesota's Lake Superior shore were stakeholders expecting to lend a hand in the restoration. While many expressed optimism that EPA's latest approach will begin repairing two centuries worth of damage, others worried about the government's ability to carry the project through to completion.
"This is one of the most exciting things I've seen in years," said Larry McDonald, mayor of Bayfield, Wis., whose economy is heavily dependent upon summer tourists to Lake Superior's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. But, McDonald added, "It's important to not delay and not lose momentum. These things have been a long time coming."
Others, including a representative of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, which annually oversees 45 million tons of shipped cargo, including exports of grain, forest products and iron ore as well as imports of turbine parts for the Midwest's burgeoning wind-power industry, said the restoration must not overlook the needs of shippers to the Great Lakes' largest port.
"It is vitally important that business and industry be invited to the table," said Adele Yorde, the authority's public relations manager. "This area was built on the maritime industry, and it will not survive without the maritime industry."
Edith Leoso, a senior council member of the nearly 7,000-member Bad River band of Lake Superior Chippewas, whose 125,000-acre reservation hugs Wisconsin's Lake Superior shoreline, openly doubted the government's will to restore the lake to its once-pristine condition.
"You talk about restoring this lake, but you'll never be able to go back and drink that water again," said Leoso, who implored EPA to meet directly with Great Lakes tribes, which she said have endured decades of broken federal promises over protection of ancestral lands.
"Here we are today trying to restore something to something, and I don't know what that is," Leoso added. "I have some ambiguous feelings about this, about talking about this lake."
EPA officials said they will solicit public comment on the restoration initiative through Aug. 19, with the hope of submitting a detailed program outline to the White House Office of Management and Budget by Sept. 1.