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Groups like Obama's Great Lakes plan, but funding an issue

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Waves hit the shore of Lake Superior
Waves along the Lake Superior shoreline at the Split Rock Lighthouse, near Two Harbors. The Obama Administration's Great Lakes restoration plan is getting favorable marks in the upper midwest, but many details, including most of the funding, remain to be worked out.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

The Obama Administration's Great Lakes restoration plan is getting favorable marks in the upper midwest, but many details, including most of the funding, remain to be worked out.

The five year action plan announced Sunday spells out specific targets and goals the Obama Administration wants to reach while spending more than $2 billion over five years on its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The plan takes on challenges including invasive species, long-term pollution and wildlife restoration.

Tom Landwehr with the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota says the plan lays out a coordinated approach to restoring a huge swath of U.S. territory.

"There are so many...entities that have some role in management regulation of the Great Lakes, that it's absolutely imperitive that there be some kind of coordinating plans to go forward," Landwehr said. "And one of the huge problems in any resource of that scope is how...you get everybody pulling the same way."

The plan sets timelines and goals to clean up and restore toxic pollution hot spots, to stop invasive species, end non-point source pollution and restore Great Lakes wildlife habitat.

Under the plan, local and state governments, universities, tribes and other organizations can propose projects designed to meet those goals.

Specific targets include a goal to reopen 1,000 miles of Great Lakes rivers now with dams to restore access to fish habitat and spawning areas upriver. That's something John Lindgren, with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, would like to pursue on the St. Louis River, where the DNR has been working to restore Lake Sturgeon for more than 20 years.

"Say a project that would bypass the Fond Du Lac dam, potentially to gain access to more spawning habitat," he said. "That would be the type of project that they would be looking for to implement."

The plan sets goals to clean-up pollution hot-spots known as "areas of concern," like the St. Louis River and bay in Duluth, holding decades worth of pollutants from industries including paper and steel making. Efforts to clean these areas have been underway on something of a piecemeal basis for decades.

The plan establishes a zero tolerance policy for new invasive species like the huge asian carp now threatening Lake Michigan.

Duluth Seaway Port Facilities Manager Jim Sharrow says it's good that the plan examines all the pathways invasive can follow into the Great Lakes, including but not limited to creatures arriving in ship ballast water. Carp, for example, might swim in from the Illinois River system. Sharrow says he hopes the objectives are attainable.

"I welcome the commitment," he said. "We have a president who is from a Great Lakes state, who recognizes the importance of the Great Lakes. Our past administration had developed a plan but was unable to fund it."

But hitting the targets will take an ongoing stream of money, which already is looking doubtful.

In 2008, Obama proposed a $5 billion restoration. Congress authorized last year's program at $475 million. The action plan is based on spending at about that level, but Obama's new budget proposes only include $300 million dollars in 2011.

That's disappointing to Jennifer Nalbone, director of navigation and invasive species of Great Lakes United, who says funding next year should at least match this year's.

Nalbone point out that project proposals submitted the first year alone added up to almost $1 billion.

"We would like to see at least the $475 million matched," Nalbone said. "There certainly is the need and the number and volume of proposals that went in demonstrates that."

The Nature Conservancy's Tom Landwehr says he also supports full funding, but a little slow down in the second year may not be a bad thing. It might give the program some breathing room to be sure it's delivering on earlier promises.