EPA invites input on Great Lakes plan

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

One of the nation’s most popular and most successful environmental programs is getting an update, and Minnesotans will have a chance to weigh in soon.

Since 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has invested in efforts to restore and protect water, habitat, and communities across the watershed. From Minnesota’s Fond du Lac Reservation to the St. Lawrence River Valley in New York, the GLRI has spent almost $5 billion on hundreds of local projects.

Those dollars pay off in a big way: federal agencies have found that the average GLRI project will generate more than three or even four times its cost in economic activity. The human and environmental health impacts are no less meaningful: GLRI funding helps provide clean drinking water, halt the spread of invasive species, and restore wetlands, shoreline, and other natural spaces.

In Minnesota, the GLRI’s results are easy to see in communities like the Twin Ports, where the GLRI has cleaned up polluted sediment in the St. Louis River estuary, restored tern habitat on Interstate Island, and funded research into aquatic species to make sure local fish are safe to eat.

As the Great Lakes faces new challenges, the EPA is beginning work on Action Plan IV, its next plan for directing federal funds to GLRI projects. They’re looking for community feedback and will be holding events across the basin to collect it.

MEP is proud to be working with the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition to engage diverse community members in advocating for new approaches to Great Lakes protection. 

Same focus areas, new approaches

The new action plan under development plans to focus on the same five core priorities:

  • Toxic Substances and Areas of Concern
  • Invasive Species
  • Nonpoint Source Pollution Impacts on Nearshore Health
  • Habitat and Species
  • Foundations for Future Actions

These issues are of great concern for Minnesota and for MEP. The Great Lakes are especially threatened by emerging toxic substances like PFAS “forever chemicals” that contaminate water and fish. Invasive species also threaten to displace native fish and other wildlife, disrupting an aquatic ecosystem that more than 35 million people call home.

One of the most interesting proposals HOW supports as a new approach is an emphasis on Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which describes indigenous and other traditional knowledge of local resources. 

MEP joins HOW in supporting the inclusion of climate  and environmental justice objectives in the new GLRI Action Plan. For all that Great Lakes communities like Duluth have been billed as “climate sanctuaries,” the Great Lakes are far from immune to climate impacts. Increasingly harsh storms, disruptions in ice, and impacts on native species are getting worse. We’ve long hoped for the GLRI to address these threats, and it’s good to see the EPA being proactive on identifying climate actions the program could support.

And it’s vital that environmental justice be front and center when it comes to Great Lakes cleanup. Diverse and low-income communities from Duluth to Detroit have long been on the frontlines of industrial pollution in the Great Lakes basin. Mercury in the St. Louis River, for example, especially affects Indigenous communities who rely heavily on catching native fish.

Step up and help Lake Superior

It’s for these reasons that the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition – of which MEP’s Executive Director Steve Morse serves as a Governance Board member – is strongly supporting community turnout at engagement sessions for the Action Plan. We need Minnesotans impacted by these issues to weigh in on this plan.

The next engagement session will take place virtually at 11 AM on June 27 and will allow members of the public to learn about the GLRI and ask questions of EPA officials. You can also submit feedback and ideas by email to the EPA directly at GLRIActionPlanIV@epa.gov.

Then, at 6 PM on July 12, the EPA will be in the Twin Ports at UW-Superior’s Yellowjacket Union to hear from community members. MEP especially encourages Indigenous folks and people of color to participate in this listening session. We’re offering to help secure stipends and travel assistance to those who may be interested – contact Andrew Slade at andrew@mepartnership.org. You don’t have to live in the Lake Superior basin to participate, either – all waters are connected, and what we do in Northern Minnesota affects us all.

It’s vital for Minnesota’s future that the EPA gets this Action Plan right. The Great Lakes are the greatest freshwater resource in North America, and what we do to protect them at this critical moment will impact every generation that follows us.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

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