Great Lakes Restoration Returns

Almost lost in the Asian carp turmoil are two major Great Lakes developments that in years past would have dominated the headlines: the release of a 5-year Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan two weeks ago, and the introduction of comprehensive Great Lakes restoration legislation last week.

Today I’ll talk about the Action Plan; in my next post, the restoration legislation.

The Action Plan is a significant refinement of the old blueprint that literally everyone has been using for Great Lakes restoration, the 2005 Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy. The 5-year old Strategy, remember, identified restoration goals, programs to achieve them, and the funding that would be needed – a total of $20 billion over 5-15 years (depending on the program area). The Strategy was an excellent overview – but it needed another level of detail to guide agencies on how to spend the money on the ground.

The Obama Administration in its 2009 Great Lakes budget provided one year’s worth of detail, specifying which agencies would receive money for which programs and which projects. And it promised to develop a 5-year plan that would set out concrete benchmarks, actions and programs to achieve them, and agencies to take those actions. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan issued last month was designed to meet that promise.

So is the Action Plan any good? The short answer is yes, and maybe. Here’s the good:

  • The Action Plan has real benchmarks (how many AOCs cleaned up, how many acres of wetlands restored) by year. That’s important to hold the governments accountable to their promises – to enable us to see if Great Lakes restoration is making a difference on the ground and in the water. And it helps demonstrate to Congress that the current appropriations are being spent well.
  • It carries the right messages. It celebrates the wonder of the lakes, recognizes their vulnerability, and emphasizes the need to improve their health by increasing their resiliency.
  • It appears to be realistic. The benchmarks should be achievable based on the funding assumptions in the plan.
  • The Action Plan assumes that Great Lakes restoration funding will return to $475 million annually – the same as the historic 2009 levels, and the levels we are pushing for this year.

But it’s hard to say the plan really hits the bulls-eye.

My major question – and one we’ve asked the Healing Our Waters Coalition scientists to think about – is whether the plan does enough in five years to make a difference to the overall health of the lakes.

Yes, the benchmarks are important and realistic —  clean up 5 AOCs, restore 97,500 acres of wetlands, cut soluable reactive phosphorus loadings by 4.5%, reduce invasive species introductions by 40 percent (why only 40 percent, asks Henry Henderson in a thoughtful blog post, and several others). But will achieving the benchmarks do enough to help the lakes? Are they too incremental?

I come back to what the region’s leading scientists said in 2005 in their path breaking paper, Prescription for Great Lakes Protection and Restoration, Avoiding the Tipping Point Of Irreversible Changes: the lakes increasingly are suffering from ecosystem breakdowns, a chain reaction of degradation, that can only be reversed if the lakes’ resiliency – what I like to think of as their immune system – is restored. Without fast action, the lakes could reach a tipping point beyond which their health will not recover.

The measures in the Action Plan are designed to improve the lakes resiliency, to help their immune system. But are they enough? Are we giving the lakes asprin when they need IV antibiotics? Because if the lakes need stronger medicine faster, the Action Plan will have to be more ambitious – which would mean changing the Action Plan’s assumptions, from invasive species policies to annual funding recommendations.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but we’re going to find out. If you have an opinion, let me know in this space.

Next post: the new Great Lakes restoration legislation, and why it’s so important.

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