Non-profit groups ticked at Biden for restoration funding cut. Quibble over slight in spite on $1 billion windfall.
According to folklore, hyper-wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much money is enough. “Just a little bit more,” Rockefeller responded.
That sounds like the current reaction of Great Lakes advocates who are disappointed at President Joe Biden’s proposed budget that makes a slight cut to the sacred Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). That’s the federal program designed to restore the Great Lakes from the ravages of the peak industrial era.
GLRI was initiated by President George W. Bush (the son) and first-funded by Congress after President Barack Obama pushed for it in his first budget. President Donald Trump tried to cut all of its funding but Congress said no.
Biden is continuing the funding but is taking a different approach.
It’s true, Biden’s budget would reduce GLRI funding from $348 million annually to $340 million. But the lead non-profit group on all things GLRI, the Healing Our Waters Coalition, called the cut a “head scratcher” saying “it really doesn’t make sense” to cut what it sees as a “marquee” program.
And in fact, the advocates want an increase for GLRI to $400 million and are lobbying Congress for that amount.
But the crying-poor advocates seem to have forgotten that Biden put $1 billion for GLRI in the big infrastructure bill that recently passed. Funding for GLRI has waxed and waned within a tight range since 2011, but this $1 billion infusion is unprecedented and it’s in addition to the annual funding.
The good news is that the $1 billion windfall will be targeted at cleaning up long neglected toxic sediment sites like the Detroit River. In spite of the $3.8 billion GLRI has received since 2010, the Detroit River still contains almost all of the estimated 3.5 million cubic yards of sediment it had in 2010.
It’s reasonable to ask, where did all that money go? The answer, to 6,000 projects big and small spread over eight states, 15 federal agencies and multiple state and local organizations. The program is classic overreach, a mile wide and an inch deep.
Biden’s focus on the toxic sites, intentional or not, will hopefully bring some rigor and financial discipline to GLRI.
Rather than using their time and access to members of Congress to quibble about a budget cut that amounts to a rounding error, here, a few ways advocates could better use their time and expertise.
Stop using GLRI money to fix Lake Erie’s algae problems. The program has spent $100 million between 2010 and 2020 on Lake Erie with few if any results. I know of no credible source who thinks Lake Erie’s problem can be remedied with money. And publicly tell Congress what everyone knows but few are reluctant to say; nutrient pollution from farms needs to be regulated in some form so Lake Erie can shed the summer toxic algae bloom syndrome.
Tell Congress the truth. GLRI needs a reset, not a tweak every few years. Not every federal agency deserves funding. Not every pet project is worthy. If you were trying to design a federal program for inefficiency, GLRI could be the template.
Demand transparency and accountability. A recent study revealed that success of a GLRI project is largely determined by the project manager. Sort of like grading your own test and telling the teacher you got an “A.” And, the study said, the public does not have access to necessary data that could help evaluate the success of projects.
I’ve followed the work of the Great Lakes restoration advocates since 2006. It’s a smart, determined and dedicated group and arguably, GLRI wouldn’t have happened without its advocacy against the odds.
But like any organization, it occasionally needs critical self-examination. It should get out of the echo chamber and ask itself the hard questions. Make decisions that won’t please everyone.
Because continued hyper-focus on money won’t restore the Great Lakes.
Chicago-based environmental journalist