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?”
He recommended that federal agencies use a more competitive process for awarding grants that would require applicants to show how results would be measured, he said.
For example, if a dam is removed to improve fish passage, the project would include studies to determine if fish actually are swimming farther upstream.
Scavia said he had seen little evidence of such monitoring. Davis, however, said it’s happening widely.
We’re spending a lot of money on monitoring and assessments,” Davis said during a panel discussion. In an interview, he said it would be difficult to calculate a precise total or percentage because individual projects are evaluated in different ways.
Davis acknowledged a need for more strategic monitoring but said there would be no shift away from the focus on practical, results-oriented projects.
“When President Obama established the program, there was an emphasis on getting real things done on the ground and in the water,” he said. “However, you do need to know your on-the-ground investments have had an impact, they’ve done what you intended them to do.”
The 2005 report that helped inspire the program was signed by more than 200 scientists. It said parts of the Great Lakes were nearing a “tipping point” where nature’s protective buffers would fail.
Scavia said the collapse of the Lake Huron salmon population, likely linked to the zebra mussel invasion that disrupted the food chain, was one example of the dire prediction coming true. But there’s still time to reverse other dangerous trends such as the resurgence of harmful algae on Lake Erie, he said.
While continued government funding, is crucial, it’s risky to assume that spending alone will solve the problem, said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Equally important is political will to strengthen regulation where necessary and a commitment from businesses and individuals to be part of the solution, he said.
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