More funding, different priotities?
Great Lakes Restoration Initiative awarded $1 billion
MARQUETTE — In a way, it’s a nice problem to have: deciding how to spend money.
A Wednesday Zoom event titled “The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative: How do we spend the funds?” addressed this question.
The event was part of Bridge Michigan’s Lunch Break series.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is a 12-year-old federal program that has dedicated billions of dollars to restoring waterways throughout the Great Lakes basin, Bridge Michigan said. The program, which was in danger of elimination during the Trump administration, recently was awarded $1 billion in new federal funding for toxic site cleanups, habitat restoration and other projects.
Participating in the Lunch Break were Bridge Michigan environment reporter Kelly House, who acted as moderator, and Crystal Davis, vice president of policy and strategic engagement at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and Robert Burns, Detroit Riverkeeper with the Friends of the Detroit River.
“It funds all sorts of work, from cleaning up contaminated sites to battling invasive species, reconnecting floodplains and habitat, and public access to waterways,” House said of the GLRI.
A big impetus for starting the GLRI, she noted, was a host of environmental laws in the 1970s that tamped down on the pollution from the 19th century.
“But we had not been making a lot of progress recovering from the damage that already had been done,” House said.
Since the GLRI launched, $3.8 billion has been dedicated toward a host of issues in the Great Lakes, she said. The recent billion-dollar funding boost could increase to $475 million annually by 2026.
“It’s flushed with more money than ever before, and that’s why these conversations are ongoing on how best to spend this money as we move forward,” House said.
Burns said that through the GLRI, FDR and its partners have implemented over $30 million to habitat restoration and projects in the Detroit River, and millions more have been made available to address contaminated sediment and remediation.
“We’ve benefited greatly from the GLRI process,” said Burns, who noted that the money coming in can address legacy contaminants and sediments.
Davis said she has been a strong proponent of GLRI, stressing that it is a worthy investment.
“I know that for every federal dollar spent on GLRI, there was a report that said there would be an additional $3.35 of additional economic activity in the Great Lakes through 2036,” Davis said.
She called GLRI “one of the tools in the toolbox” to be used to clean up the Great Lakes.
However, not just federal dollars are needed.
Davis said all the water challenges are going to require an “all-hands-on-the-deck” approach.
“There’s not going to be a single action at the federal level that’s going to clean up the lakes,” Davis said. “It’s really going to take action at the state and local levels as well. GLRI is no exception. There will be federal dollars, but we know that those dollars work better when they are coupled with state investment as well.
“There is responsibility at the local level — not just local government but with local community groups and the like in terms of working on implementing projects and programs.”
House asked Burns and Davis about what they believe should be GLRI priorities.
For the Detroit River, it means moving “inland,” so to speak.
“Some of the issues that we’re dealing with are not actually being generated in the Detroit River but being generated in the tributaries and the watersheds,” Burns said.
He pointed out that stormwater, certain sanitary situations and land use also are contributors to those problems.
“We really got to get some improvements in our sanitary systems and dealing with combined sewer overflows and things like that, along with stormwater and things that are coming in from the watershed,” he said.
Davis indicated that there’s an opportunity to incorporate environmental justice into GLRI.
“That can done in a myriad of ways,” she said. “One of the conversations I find myself having pretty frequently is the fact that there are systems set up in their statute that require public meetings and comment periods and hearings.
“But again, for everyday citizens, they’re full of technical jargon and really hard to access sometimes, and so what I’d like to see is some community engagement from the beginning stages of talking about GLRI and putting out requests for applications, and talking about outreach and engagement, all the way through to awarding the grant, with specific set-asides for communities that are in the most need.”
Innovation and technology are other priorities, Davis said.
“I think I get probably a phone call every other week from someone who has an amazing idea about how to address some of the water challenges plaguing our Great Lakes,” she said, “and what we need is additional funding to really invest in some of these ideas, especially ideas that have the scalability and that have been to proven so that we can address the challenges.”
For more information about GLRI, visit www.glri.us.
Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.