Minnesota’s ambitious effort to clean up the long-polluted St. Louis River estuary and bay got a well-deserved boost from Congress late last month when lawmakers approved full funding — $300 million in 2016 — for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Launched in 2010, the GLRI is one of the largest federal investments in Great Lakes water quality in decades. Annual funding that has hovered around the targeted level of $300 million after an initial appropriation of $475 million has accelerated clean up of so-called “Areas of Concern.”
These heavily polluted sites are the legacy of an era when clean water regulations didn’t exist to prevent thoughtless waste disposal and land use. Minnesota’s St. Louis River, which empties into Lake Superior, is the only Minnesota site on the original list of 43 federally designated areas of concern that ring the lakes in the U.S. and Canada. Generally, the areas of concern are harbors and rivers that have contaminated sediment and habitat damaged by industrialization and dredging.
The GLRI has been targeted in previous years for cuts; funding dipped to $285 million in 2013 under sequestration. This year, President Obama requested $250 million. Congressional lawmakers added $50 million to hit $300 million, the annual sum needed to advance clean up efforts.
The appropriation was part of the 2016 federal spending bill passed shortly before lawmakers headed home for the holidays. Its passage was a welcome signal that Congress remains committed to this important effort, no matter which political party is in control.
Minnesota and its project partners aim to complete major contaminated sediment cleanup and habitat restoration projects by 2020 and “delist” the St. Louis River as an Area of Concern by 2025. Funding provided through the GLRI, as well as support from state Legacy Amendment dollars and other state resources, is key to achieving this. Congressional lawmakers need to step up again in 2017 and fully fund the GLRI so this important work continues.