The logging, mining and manufacturing that took place along the Great Lakes’ shores and the cargo-laden ships traversing their tempestuous waters helped power our nation’s transformation from overlooked former colony to global superpower.
But this industrial might came with a high price. Waste dumped into rivers and estuaries in a less-enlightened age left behind polluted waters and contaminated sediment. Dredging and other unchecked land use damaged habitat and wetlands. This disturbing legacy continues to impair the Great Lakes’ recreational use and economic development decades later.
The responsibility for cleanup and restoration falls to today’s more-informed generations. While that massive task is underway in Minnesota and elsewhere, thanks to the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and other efforts, the momentum must be sustained to see these efforts through.
This historic work should be completed, not passed along to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Beach closures, feeble fisheries, drinking water concerns and aquatic invaders should be things of the past by the time future generations enjoy these world-class natural resources.
That’s why it’s so important to head off proposed budget cuts to the GLRI, the “largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades,’’ according to federal officials. Launched in 2010, the GLRI has made the restoration of these natural resources a national priority, according to the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition of more than 100 conservation, outdoor recreation and environmental groups.
More than $1.6 billion has been invested over the past four years to restore water quality and habitat, fight invasive species and reduce new pollution entering the lakes through runoff. Efforts have been particularly aimed at cleaning up so-called “areas of concern,’’ a long list of environmentally degraded sites that dot the Great Lakes’ shores from the mouth of Minnesota’s St. Louis River to the New York shores of Lake Ontario.
Good headway has been made, but there’s still heavy lifting ahead. To ensure it happens, President Obama and Congress need to follow through on the national commitment made to Great Lakes stewardship. Funding cannot be allowed to falter.
Unfortunately, the GLRI program is in the federal budget cross hairs. Obama has proposed cutting $25 million from last year’s $300 million funding level even though the need for program dollars is intensifying. Republicans have also taken aim at the program, despite bipartisan support for Great Lakes restoration.
According to advocates, a $25 million cut is enough to delay or jeopardize work underway. The timing of the proposed 8 percent cut is especially problematic for Minnesota.
The state has launched an ambitious plan to “delist” the St. Louis River bay and estuary by 2025. This area is one of the largest and most polluted on the list of 43 areas of concern along the Great Lakes. Last summer, state officials and project partners released a road map for achieving this in the next 11 years, with a goal to complete all cost-intenstive work by 2020.
If successful, the delisting would be one of the most significant environmental restoration projects in state history. The payoff would be economic, as well, with Duluth officials hoping to expand hiking, biking, canoeing and other recreational activities in the revitalized estuary to bolster tourism and to attract young families to nearby communities.
Completing this work requires consistent federal support and funding. Not only should GLRI funding be restored to $300 million for 2015, but Congress also needs to ensure that this initiative is funded in five-year increments for more stability — a key for local and state planning to make the cleanup a reality. Minnesota’s congressional delegation has been at the forefront of efforts to fully fund GLRI, but needs to stay focused on it.
“Minnesota stands at an important crossroads when it comes to restoring the St. Louis River estuary from decades upon decades of legacy pollution,’’ said Darrell Gerber, water program coordinator for the Minnesota office of Clean Water Action, an advocacy group. “We have a pathway to cleaning up the estuary by 2025. … A critical component of federal support is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Cuts in funding today risk delays and greater costs down the road in efforts to restore and protect Lake Superior.”