Conference fuels debate about success of GLRI

In its first four years, the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has funded the removal of more than 1-million cubic yards of toxic mud from polluted harbors, restored more than 90,000 acres of wetlands in the basin and cleared 800 miles of rivers of dams and other barriers.

So is the program working?

Depends who you ask.

The GLRI was a response to a 2003 study which warned that years of pollution, 180 invasive species and widespread loss of wetlands had weakened the Great Lakes ecosystem, reduced its resiliency and pushed the freshwater seas to the brink of an ecological tipping point, beyond which the lakes might never recover.

Don Scavia, an early advocate for the GLRI who heads the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute, said it’s unclear whether the first $1.3 billion of GLRI projects has helped the lakes avoid that ecological tipping point. He said scant baseline data and follow-up monitoring make it difficult to measure whether GLRI projects have improved overall ecosystem function or made the lakes more resilient.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on but it’s not clear that it’s going toward measured outcomes,” Scavia said.

Conservation leaders and government officials disputed Scavia’s assessment.

“When President Obama established the (GLRI) program, the emphasis was on getting things done; that emphasis won’t change,” said Cameron Davis, senior adviser to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator and the Obama Administration’s point person on Great Lakes issues.

The discussion of how to manage the next phase of GLRI projects opened the 9th annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference, which is being held in Milwaukee.

Davis called the GLRI an “amazing program,” but said there may be room for improvement. The EPA will unveil its proposed action plan for the GLRI’s second phase in early 2014.

“I do believe the second phase of the GLRI needs to do things a little differently,” said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center and co-chair of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “I think we’re at the point where we have to show ecological outcomes, we can’t just show project outcomes.”

The GLRI has provided a major financial boost for Great Lakes restoration work, but it accounts for less than 50 percent of all federal funds dedicated to improving the lakes, said Patrick Doran, director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Michigan chapter.

Todd Ambs, director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, opened the conference by urging attendees to fight for continued GLRI funding. The Great Lakes Coalition wants Congress to provide at least $300 million for the program in fiscal 2014; the U.S. House of Representatives initially proposed an 80 percent cut in GLRI funding next year.

“We have taken the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and made it a model of what the federal government can do for us,” Ambs said.



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