MILWAUKEE — An Obama administration program that has spent about $1.3 billion to rescue Great Lakes ecosystems on the verge of collapse should be fine-tuned to make sure it’s getting the job done, scientists and advocates said Tuesday.
The federal government established the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2009, responding to warnings from experts that a combination of ailments — invasive species, toxic and nutrient pollution, wildlife habitat destruction — was wearing down the system’s ability to ward off catastrophic breakdown that could turn parts of the waterways into aquatic deserts.
After distributing grants to more than 1,700 projects with more in the pipeline, the administration plans to roll out a second five-year phase next year, said Cameron Davis, a senior adviser with the Environmental Protection Agency. The occasion has ignited a debate over how to measure the program’s effectiveness and direct future spending.
During the annual Great Lakes Week conference in Milwaukee, academics including Don Scavia of the University of Michigan called for giving higher priority to projects that would help fix systemic problems harming wide sections of the lakes instead of just local areas. Also needed is more scientific monitoring to measure how well they are working, he said.
The program’s first phase has focused on a backlog of shovel-ready tasks such as repairing wetlands, removing dams and cleaning toxic hot spots, Scavia said. What’s needed now is to target bigger areas such as the algae-plagued western basin of Lake Erie that are suffering from a variety of ailments, he said.
“What are the critical things that we need to do to restore the western basin, and what projects would actually come together to provide the answer? That kind of up-front thinking I haven’t seen,” Scavia said. “Are the projects adding up to restoring the systems?”