How to best spend a billion dollar windfall? Stay the bureaucratic course or full speed ahead on cleaning up toxic sites?
It was like Christmas in August recently for the Great Lakes when the Senate finally reached a compromise agreement on President Joe Biden’s big infrastructure bill. It is now in the House where its future is less certain.
Quietly tucked into the legislation was $1 billion for the Great Lakes. Specifically, for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), the 2010 Obama era program designed to restore the lakes to a semblance of the pre-industrial era.
Here’s the kicker.
This billion dollar gift is in addition to the annual $300+ million GLRI has received annually since 2010. To date, the program has funded Great Lakes cleanup projects to the tune of $3.5 billion with another billion or more dollars tentatively scheduled for the next four years. That’s a boat load of money.
So, good news right?
Maybe, depending on where the money is spent.
I’ve tracked GLRI since its inception in 2009 and when in the planning stages. The good news is that it’s a big program of the type that only the federal government can implement. The bad news is it’s a big federal government program which means it comes with a lot of baggage.
In addition to the eight states, toss in a dozen federal agencies and the requisite state agencies and you end up with a bureaucratic, slow moving train of a restoration project that’s a mile wide and an inch deep. And where seemingly every member of congress in a district close to the Great Lakes has to have a slice of the federal pie. Legislators love to host press conferences where they can brag about bringing federal funding, warranted or not, back to their district.
Back to the $1 billion of newly-found funding and how to spend it.
Cleaning up 26 toxic sites in the region designated Areas of Concern in 1987 has been part of the original GLRI plan and has badly lagged. Of the 26, only five have been removed from the list.
The Detroit River for example still has 3-4 million cubic yards of toxic sediment on its bottom and remediation won’t happen until 2030 or later, I’ve been told by knowledgeable sources.
What if that billion dollars of Biden bucks was set aside specifically for those 21 remaining toxic sites? There’s a credible plan.
And it’s not my plan.
In the run-up to creation of the big infrastructure bill, a coalition of Great Lakes activist groups wrote to Congress requesting $1.5 billion for the Areas of Concern. I often disagree with those groups on restoration priorities and level of success, but on accelerating toxic site clean up, they’re on the mark.
I recently told a colleague that I would no longer write about the GLRI program. That’s because it drones along with some success but that’s combined with more than enough inertia.
One Great Lakes watcher told me a few years ago that succeeding generations, when they look back at this era of restoration, will say that their predecessors didn’t accomplish that much.
Minimally, I’ll still keep an eye on those AOC’s and what happens with the Detroit River. It’s the heart of the Great Lakes and also a mile from where I grew up so I feel obligated to report on its health and hopefully, recovery.
Besides, it deserves better than it has received from the multi-billions of dollars spent on restoring the Great Lakes.
Photo: Detroit River via NOAA.
It's been a while, let's catch up. First, the 2014 Toledo water crisis.
August 2nd was the 7th anniversary of the Toledo water crisis when a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie caused the disruption of drinking water for 500,000 people in Toledo and Michigan.
It was a stunning event, the type that isn't supposed to happen in a developed country, especially the U.S. But it did and for three days the spotlight was on Toledo as its citizens scrambled far and wide for bottled water.
Once the all clear to drink Lake Erie water was given the soul-searching began. How did this happen and how do we prevent it from happening again. But it didn't take a big investigation. Algae blooms are a product of nutrient runoff from farms that eventually flows to Lake Erie. By 2014, there was little debate about the veracity of the source.
The solution, get farmers to reduce the runoff without regulating them. So, Ohio and the federal government funded programs that would provide financial incentives if farmers implemented best practices that reduced runoff. In other words, pay farmers to not pollute.
According to U.S. EPA information, since 2010 $100 million was paid from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative coffers to ag to implement those best practices. Did it work? Not really. A relatively small number of farmers took advantage of the incentive program and not at a large enough scale to turn the tide toward protecting Lake Erie.
In 2019 Ohio, with great fanfare, launched its own financial incentive program that pays farmers to not pollute. Results? Too soon to tell but most experts are skeptical.
More telling is what we aren't doing and that's developing regulations to prevent farmers from sending their algae-fueling fertilizer to Lake Erie. At a 2019 conference of Great Lakes governors I asked Ohio's Mike DeWine if, given the risk to Lake Erie, it was time to slap some regs on farmers. He gave me a circuitous answer listing the things that Ohio is doing to combat algae blooms but closed by saying on regulations, "we're not there yet."
There's a lawsuit brought by activists against the U.S. EPA that's been winding its way through the federal court process that if successful, would require the agency to pick up the pace on protecting Lake Erie. A decision is expected in September.
Handicap what a court will do at your own peril but I don't see a sea change coming from the courts or any federal or state agency on tightening the screws on ag's farming practices.
And it's not political. If Democrats and Republicans agree on one thing, it's that farmers, the original stewards of the land as they like to refer to themselves, don't need more regulation. Alienating farmers is the political third rail.
The 7th anniversary of the Toledo water crisis came and went with little fanfare that I could detect. How quickly we forget, I guess. Or it can't happen here syndrome. But don't be surprised if there's another one someday and it won't provide any advance notice.
And like Toledo in 2014 and Flint in 2016, the spotlight will be on the Great Lakes region's stewardship of its vast water supply. But the spotlight will eventually go out, until the next crisis.
Chicago-based environmental journalist