Great Lakes Action Plan Offers Steady Path Forward

Last month, the EPA released its long-awaited Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan III, outlining the strategy guiding federal actions to restore and protect the Lakes being undertaken by federal agencies in partnership with the region.

The plan’s release comes at a time when both the U.S. House and Senate are seeking to increase funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative beyond $300 million per year. Over the last 10 years, Congress has invested over $3.1 billion in Great Lakes Restoration, and securing a strong action plan has long been a priority of the Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition.

The recently released plan for the Great Lakes hews closely to previously released action plans. It guides federal restoration efforts around four major priorities: cleaning up toxic hot-spots (so-called Areas of Concern), restoring fish and wildlife habitat, working to stop the spread of invasive species such as Asian Carp, and reducing agricultural runoff to fight toxic algal blooms in the Great Lakes.

Here’s our take on the EPA’s action plan:

1. These are the right priorities to focus on – taken together, they point to a solid plan for restoring and preserving the health of the Great Lakes.

2. It’s going to take robust funding and strong policy to make this plan a reality. In addition to robust funding for restoration projects, it will be essential to have strong policies in place that protect the Great Lakes and the waters that feed them. The Trump Administration and the EPA must reverse its decision to gut protections for streams, waterways and wetlands. With many cities and towns still living with unsafe drinking water, now is not the time to cut back on clean water enforcement. We need to strengthen clean water protections, not roll them back.

3. Robust investments in water infrastructure are also needed to ensure that restoration efforts last for the long term. Aging sewer and stormwater infrastructure threaten the health of the Great Lakes and the health of the millions of Americans who rely on the lakes for drinking water. The Great Lakes region faces at least $179 billion of needed improvements to its water infrastructure to provide local communities with drinking water and wastewater services. It’s imperative that Congress boost investments to fix our crumbling infrastructure.

4. The bipartisan support for Great Lakes restoration continues to pay dividends. Over the last decade, Republicans and Democrats have come together to make Great Lakes restoration a national priority and to provide much-needed funding for restoration efforts. That cooperation continues. Recently the U.S. Senate recommended increasing Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding from $300 million to $310 million; and the U.S. House boosted restoration investments from $300 million to $320 million. The final budget is yet to be determined—yet it’s clear that bipartisan cooperation has been essential to success. The Great Lakes congressional delegation has shown great leadership to make that funding a reality.

5. Climate change will only exacerbate threats to the lakes—and needs to be taken into account as restoration efforts move forward. As climate change continues its course, the Great Lakes region is witnessing more intense storms, greater flooding, more shore erosion and more runoff pollution that fuels toxic algal outbreaks. These new challenges will require continued investment in the lakes, as well as solid plans to ensure that their worst effects can be mitigated.

6. Future plans must explicitly address equity and justice issues. Low-income communities and communities of color are bearing the brunt of environmental degradation caused by pollution and climate change. Yet, traditionally, these communities have been the least likely to have a seat at the table when solutions are being devised. Any plan to restore the Great Lakes must take these inequities into account and take the lead from these communities.

Moving forward, the Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition looks to work with Congress to finalize the restoration funding allocation and maintain funding for the long term. We also seek to secure funding to upgrade vital water infrastructure and to eliminate the rollbacks of clean water protections that threaten the health and vitality of our lakes.