Great Lakes restoration produces results

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Todd Ambs

Todd Ambs

Editors note: This commentary by Todd Ambs, the campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, is in response to a July 25 column written by Echo commentator Gary Wilson.

The Great Lakes have many challenges but “benign neglect” is not one of them. So I must take significant issue with a recent column by Gary Wilson entitled “Misguided priorities, contradictions and benign neglect plague water management.” Mr. Wilson would have us believe that we have made little progress in the last several years to better protect and restore our Great Lakes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Great Lakes restoration efforts are producing results in communities across the region–and we expect to see continued progress in the years ahead thanks to strong support locally, regionally, and nationally to protect and restore the source of drinking water for more than 30 million people.

A decade ago, hundreds of groups, businesses, tribes and HealingWatersLogogovernmental entities and nearly 2,000 people across the region helped to create a comprehensive strategy to restore and protect the Great Lakes. This blueprint for action was embraced by a broad array of stakeholders across the Great Lakes, and nongovernmental organizations from around the region banded together to form the Healing Our Waters (HOW) — Great Lakes Coalition, both to help craft, and to advocate for federal resources to implement, the action plan.

New funding sparks restoration

Today, thanks to President Obama and strong bi-partisan support in Congress, over $1.6 billion has been appropriated, funding more than 2,000 projects. The HOW Coalition has an interactive map on our website,, illustrating well over 100 projects around the region where federal investments have cleaned up toxic hot spots, restored wetlands, reduced runoff from cities and farms and advanced efforts to keep new invasive species out of the lakes.

Mr. Wilson would have you believe that these “accomplishments are mostly at the margins…”

  • Tell that to folks in Illinois who, after years of delay, are witnessing the cleaning up Waukegan Harbor in Illinois.
  • Ask the residents of Ashtabula what it means as the cleanup of the river is helping to revitalize that community in Northeast Ohio.
  • After years of inaction, the cleanup of contaminated sediments in Presque Isle Bay has provided an economic shot in the arm to Erie, Penn.
  • And thanks to these new federal dollars during a most austere time in Congress, the first tribal national park in the United States now sits on the shores of Lake Superior near the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin.

“Accomplishments at the margins”? Hardly. Federal restoration efforts are making a major difference for people and for the Lakes.

Contaminated sediments removed, rivers and wetlands restored

As we near the end of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiatives (GLRI)’s first five years (FY10-14), the results have been inspiring. Consider:

  • In the last four years, these new federal investments have accelerated the cleanup of some of the most polluted harbors, rivers and lakes in the region. Communities grappling with drinking water restrictions, fish consumption advisories, beach closures and so-called “beneficial use impairments” have seen more than two dozen of these impairments removed at 13 contaminated sites in the Great Lakes. In fact, more than three times as many impaired water segments have been restored in the Basin since the GLRI began in 2010 than in the previous 22 years; replaced by hope for a bright economic future in these spots that for so long were pegged as places of persistent pollution.
  • Over 115,000 acres of wetlands and other habitat in the Great Lakes have been restored, improving water quality, creating habitat for fish and wildlife, and bolstering outdoor recreational opportunities.
  • Nearly 2,000 river miles have been cleared of barriers resulting in fish swimming into stretches of river where they have been absent for decades.

These are just snapshots of the scores of success stories all around our Great Lakes. In an age when people are justifiably concerned about what Washington and the federal government will do TO us, we have taken the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and made it a model for what the federal government can do FOR us.

Mr. Wilson notes his concern with sewer overflows when he states, “…and sewage continues to flow into the Great Lakes…, with no remedy in sight…” We share that concern, but his comments would have you believe that nothing is being done to address the problem because the GLRI does not fund that work.

The GLRI does not fund the very expensive wastewater infrastructure improvements that are needed in many communities. That is because there are other sources of funding for that work. It is also why the HOW Coalition and many others have successfully advocated for well in excess of $1 billion annually for the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund, a federal program that assists communities across the nation to update their wastewater infrastructure.

Considerable progress reducing sewer overflows

Is the progress complete? No, far from it, and we remain very concerned about this form of pollution and about the lack of significant progress in cities across the region. But we have seen some dramatic advances in the region over the last ten years.

  • Thanks to investments of well over $1 billion, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District is now capturing 98.3 percent of its wastewater yearly and is making more investments to upgrade their system and using green infrastructure to address the rest.
  • In Cleveland the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, thanks to an investment of $1.2 billion, has cut sewer overflows in half yearly since the mid 1990’s.  Currently they are carrying out a $3 billion program to achieve numbers similar to Milwaukee’s.
  • And Grand Rapids, Mich., has virtually eliminated sewer overflows thanks to improvements that brought with them a price tag of $250 million.

These remedies have been costly, sometimes involving litigation by citizen groups and others to force action, but real, tangible results have occurred and as a result the waterways through the basin, including the Great Lakes themselves, are feeling the benefits.

The investments of GLRI dollars are not only achieving environmental results but economic revitalization as well. For example, in Muskegon, Mich., thanks to the GLRI, two miles of shoreline and habitat along Muskegon Lake were restored, allowing fish, turtles, shorebirds and waterfowl to return. Economists estimate that the $10 million project will produce more than $66 million in economic benefits, and create 125 jobs.

The cleanup of the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee pumped new life into that riverfront community. That work increased property values along the river and gave rise to one of my favorite spots in Milwaukee, The Horny Goat Brewing Company.

The brewery, which opened in 2009, includes a large patio that allows patrons to dine along the river; outdoor fire pits, sand volleyball courts and a concert stage. The Horny Goat’s deck is now widely regarded as Milwaukee’s best patio.

Work far from done, but coordinated efforts well underway

There is a great deal more to do and the current work is not perfect by any means. The HOW Coalition has expressed concerns with some of the ways that EPA and other federal agencies are tracking the impact of the GLRI investments on the overall water quality in the Great Lakes. The current action plan doesn’t do enough to respond to the impacts of climate change in the region. We hope to see improvements to address these concerns in the new five-year action plan that is due out by this October.

But the framework for success in the Great Lakes is in place. Federal funds are flowing through a coordinated initiative that includes a detailed action plan that has been tracked, critiqued and monitored in a way that could be a model for other federal programs.

So let’s focus on the facts, recognize the tremendous work by so many to develop a clear vision for healthier Great Lakes and redouble our efforts to insist on the resources needed to protect and restore the most significant freshwater resource on the planet.

One thought on “Great Lakes restoration produces results

  1. I welcome the comments of the Healing Our Waters Coalition’s
    Todd Ambs.

    The Great Lakes and the region are better served when there
    is an exchange of ideas.

    A few comments and clarifications:

    Ambs leads with my reference to “benign neglect” but
    contextualizes it to the Great Lakes. But in the body of my work “benign
    neglect” clearly refers to the Detroit water shutoffs, not restoration.

    He also doesn’t address a central point of the commentary
    which is, could a better result have been achieved if restoration had focused
    on one or two big projects instead of thousands spread across the region. As I’ve
    traveled the region and talked with staff on the ground doing restoration work,
    their biggest criticism is that it is too fragmented.

    If you follow my observations on Great Lakes restoration
    over time in Echo, on Detroit Public TV and on WKAR — I consistently praise the
    federal program for its work on the toxic legacy sites like Waukegan Harbor,
    White Lake and more. Plus I have recognized the efforts where warranted of the
    Healing Our Waters coalition.

    Here’s an example.

    Hopefully my commentary and Todd Ambs’ response will prompt
    readers to think critically about Great Lakes issues.

    If they do both of us will have been successful.

    Gary Wilson

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