MEP goes to Washington for the Great Lakes

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From left: Steve Morse, Kris Eilers, LeAnn Littlewolf, Sen. Tina Smith, Breanna Ellison, Andrew Slade, Ben Penner

Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Minnesota is a place where waters begin. With a few exceptions, just about all of our rivers start here and flow somewhere else. Snowmelt and rainfall in the Northwoods flow north to Hudson Bay, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and east into Lake Superior, our nation’s greatest freshwater resource. So when it comes time to make sure lawmakers in our nation’s capital prioritize that precious resource, it’s only natural that the Minnesota Environmental Partnership shares in the work.

MEP Executive Director Steve Morse and Great Lakes Program Director Andrew Slade had the opportunity to do that work earlier this month when they attended Great Lakes Days in Washington, D.C. Joined by community advocates, they spoke with members of Congress and their staff about ways that the federal government can restore and reinvest in our Great Lakes and the communities who call it home.

Great Lakes Days (March 7-9) is a program of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition that brings voices from around the Great Lakes basin to share their priorities with policymakers. Like MEP on a regional scale, the Coalition (which counts Steve Morse as a member of its Board) is composed of dozens of organizations and works on a variety of issues ranging from invasive species to public health.

For our part, MEP uses Great Lakes Days as an opportunity to spotlight Minnesota voices – particularly from Duluth and the North Shore – which are not often heard in the halls of the U.S. Capitol. This year, we brought with us Kris Eilers and Breanna Ellison of the St. Louis River Alliance, LeeAnn LittleWolf of the American Indian Community Housing Organization, and Ben Penner, a farmer who grows the regenerative crop Kernza. Enjoying D.C.’s somewhat balmier weather, the team met with Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, Congresswoman Angie Craig, and congressional staff for five of Minnesota’s other U.S. Representatives.

The Issues

Breanna Ellison meets with Rachel Hunter, staffer for Rep. Angie Craig (DFL, CD 2)

One of the HOW-Great Lakes Coalition’s greatest priorities – and greatest successes – is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), a popular federal program that invests in improving and protecting this vital watershed. Going strong since 2009, the GLRI funds projects ranging from invasive species management to toxic waste cleanup to habitat restoration.

While other environmental efforts face partisan rancor in Washington, the GLRI generally enjoys broad bipartisan support, especially from members of Congress from around the lakeshores. We don’t take that support for granted, though – after all, the Trump Administration proposed cutting the GLRI by 90% in 2019. When Morse and Slade went to Washington, they made sure to highlight the GLRI’s successes in Lake Superior communities like Duluth, making the case for continued investment of $425 million in funding for the program in the next budget. We’re happy to report that Minnesota’s members of Congress showed plenty of enthusiasm for this bipartisan effort.

MEP also brought up another key issue we’ve worked on, especially Duluth: the quest to replace Minnesotans’ aging, poisonous lead drinking water service lines. Morse and Slade thanked lawmakers for passing the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, which has made significant funds available for replacing these pipes. They also reported on the rapidly advancing efforts at the Minnesota Legislature to replace every lead service line in the state within the next ten years, funded in part by those federal dollars.

Naturally, MEP spoke with members and staff about one of our longtime areas of expertise: improving the way we farm and the crops we grow to help protect our water. The current, dominant system of growing corn and soybeans has caused great difficulties around the Great Lakes basin.

Fertilizer pollution, along with climate change, contributes to the massive algal blooms that emerge every year in Lake Erie. Closer to home, thousands of Minnesota homes, especially in the southern part of the state, have to deal with well water contaminated by nitrates from fertilizer. These problems are in separate watersheds, but they’re closely connected – as are the solutions.

That’s why MEP has a long term commitment to support the University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative in both the Legislature and Congress. Forever Green is developing continuous living cover crops, like the aforementioned Kernza, that can revolutionize the way we use farmland. Some crops can replace corn, soybeans, and other annual crops, while others can be integrated into them, growing in the offseason. In either case, these CLC crops help keep fertilizer runoff from flowing downstream, but that’s not all: they also build healthier soil, provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, and help prepare for climate change. Critically, they’re also becoming commercially viable, meaning that farmers will benefit economically by adding these crops to their fields.

If we can further support this research and new supply chains (with some federal support), these crops can be a viable solution for many of the problems that plague, not just our MN lakes and rivers, but also our Great Lakes. And they have countless potential uses, including food, low-carbon biofuels, and even bioplastics.

Ben Penner (left) meets with John Altendorf, staffer for Rep. Brad Finstad (R, CD 1)

Our team, with the help of Ben Penner, made sure to impress the need for these Minnesota-grown solutions on our members of Congress, and at least one was wildly enthusiastic. Congresswoman Craig told us, “I love Kernza!” 

Just as important as our Congressional meetings, though, were the connections our team built with other Great Lakes community organizations. At one of the Coalition training sessions, MEP shared our video, Mercury in the St. Louis River, which we produced with Midstory and community partners to shine light on one of the biggest environmental justice issues on our end of the Great Lakes.

Today, the Great Lakes face an uncertain future, with climate change, agricultural pollution, PFAS, and invasive species all threatening this watery region we call home. But just as great as these challenges are the grassroots organizations from around the lakes working to protect them for generations to come.

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