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Monday, October 21, 2013

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative: Background and Issues

Pervaze A. Sheikh
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

The Great Lakes ecosystem is recognized by many as an international natural resource that has been altered by human activities and climate variability. These alterations have led to degraded water quality, diminished habitat, lower native fish and wildlife populations, and an altered ecosystem. In response, the federal governments of the United States and Canada and the state and provincial governments in the Great Lakes basin are implementing several restoration activities. These activities range from mitigating the harmful effects of toxic substances in lake waters to restoring fish habitat.

Most laws and efforts in the past addressed specific issues in the Great Lakes; a few addressed issues at the ecosystem level. This caused the Government Accountability Office and others to express the need for initiating and implementing a comprehensive approach for restoring the Great Lakes ecosystem. In 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) was proposed and implemented by the Obama Administration. The aim of GLRI is to restore the Great Lakes ecosystem under one initiative. Specifically, the GLRI is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem by directing activities to address five focus areas: (1) toxic substances and Areas of Concern (these are areas in the Great Lakes that are environmentally degraded); (2) invasive species; (3) nearshore health and nonpoint source pollution; (4) habitat and wildlife protection and restoration; and (5) accountability, monitoring, evaluation, communication, and partnerships.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the lead federal agency for implementing and administering GLRI. The EPA has received authority to distribute appropriated funds to several federal agencies, which then undertake restoration activities and projects. The EPA also administers grant programs to fund nonfederal projects and activities related to restoration. An interagency Great Lakes Task Force oversees the implementation of GLRI and created a strategy to guide restoration. The strategy (referred to as the Action Plan) provides a framework for restoring the Great Lakes ecosystem under GLRI from 2010 through 2014. For each focus area under the GLRI, the Action Plan provides a problem statement, a set of goals, interim objectives, progress measures, final targets, and principal activities for restoring the ecosystem. Restoration activities are being done under existing federal authorities. The GLRI has received approximately $1.37 billion in appropriated funds since FY2010.

The scope and scale of this restoration initiative have led some to question its direction and duration. The GLRI does not specify what a restored ecosystem might look like, nor does it estimate how long restoration activities will need to be conducted, and how much restoration might cost. Some other questions surrounding this initiative include how the GLRI is governed and how federal and state restoration efforts are coordinated. Furthermore, GLRI remains an administrative initiative; there is no law that specifically authorizes GLRI, though Congress has appropriated funds to implement the program. Congress might consider these questions in oversight hearings or in legislation during the 113
th Congress. Companion bills have been introduced in the 113th Congress to address GLRI. S. 1232 and H.R. 2773 would establish an administrative and management structure for restoration activities in the Great Lakes, authorize GLRI and appropriations for its implementation, specify the scope and function of GLRI, and authorize the coordinating role of the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force.

Date of Report: September 30, 2013
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: R43249
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