TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - An Obama administration program that has spent
more than $1.3 billion on healing the troubled Great Lakes needs a better
scorecard for measuring its performance, a government watchdog report
released Friday says.
The analysis by the Government Accountability Office does not pass judgment
on how well the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is working, while
acknowledging that federal officials and advocacy groups believe it’s making
significant progress on pollution cleanup and other problems.
But it says a plan for running the program devised by the Environmental
Protection Agency and other federal departments is short on yardsticks for
confirming those impressions.
“Without useful measures, EPA may not be able to determine that GLRI efforts
are producing the desired results,” says the report by the GAO, the
investigative arm of Congress.
The Obama administration began funding the program in 2010, based on a
priority list compiled by state, local and tribal officials, academics and
advocacy groups. It’s based on scientific findings that the lakes face
pervasive threats - primarily invasive species, toxic contamination, runoff
from farms and cities, and loss of wildlife habitat - that could devastate
fish populations and undermine ecosystems.
The lakes provide drinking water to more than 30 million people and are an
economic pillar for eight states and two Canadian provinces.
The initiative has funded more than 1,700 projects, from wetland
restorations to removal of contaminated sediments from harbors and river
mouths. It has supported the fight to ward off Asian carp - ravenous fish
that have infested the Mississippi River and are moving toward the lakes.
Some scientists say the program has devoted too little money to basic
research and monitoring needed to make sure the hands-on projects serve
broad goals as well as local needs. The GAO report appears to echo those
“We recognize the potentially significant contributions that individual GLRI
projects can make to resolving specific environmental and public health
stresses that threaten the Great Lakes,” it says. “However, we believe that
these contributions need to be viewed in the context of larger factors
affecting the Great Lakes” so strategies can be developed “to help ensure
the best possible outcome.”
Achieving the program’s goals could be hampered by factors beyond its
control, such as climate change and substandard infrastructure that allows
polluted wastewater and storm runoff to reach the lakes, the report said.
Susan Hedman, EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Manager, told the GAO in a
letter that her agency agrees with most of its findings.
Hedman said a management plan for the next five-year phase of the program,
scheduled to begin in 2015, will include more progress measurements and take
climate change into greater account. But linking broad environmental change
to any specific project is difficult, she said.
When the program began four years ago, there was such a huge backlog of
cleanup projects that monitoring was less of a priority, said Todd Ambs,
director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which lobbies for
“We know now that it’s money well spent and producing great site-specific
results,” Ambs said. “So now is a good time to tie those results together
with broader measurements of how these investments are affecting the overall
health of the Great Lakes basin.”