Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Great Lakes funding comes under scrutiny, but is anything really wrong there?

The money has funded more than 1,700 programs of myriad kinds, from basic research to habitat restoration to environmental monitoring to public education.

lake superior
It would be hard to find a more politically popular national environmental program than the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Though it might be hard to find a more politically popular national environmental program than the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative just now, it was only a matter of time before the question was asked:

What are the taxpayers getting for the $1.3 billion that’s been spent over the last four years?

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) addresses that question, sort of, in the form of a performance audit that runs to more than 100 pages without quite reaching a conclusion.

And that could prove unfortunate, I think, for an important, overdue set of initiatives that survived an attack of the Congressional budget hawks earlier this year because of strong bipartisan support, but will probably come under renewed scrutiny in the next round of slash and burn.

Article continues after advertisement

The GAO audit was conducted at the behest of two House Republicans: Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, chairman of the transportation committee (whose district lies outside the Great Lakes basin), and Bob Gibbs of Ohio, chairman of the transportation subcommittee on water resources and environment (whose district almost touches Lake Erie near Cleveland).

Its key finding is right there in the title, itself a remarkable statement of what-else-is-new: “Further Actions Would Result in More Useful Assessments and Help Address Factors That Limit Progress.”

Why GLRI’s efforts matter

OK, wake up, now! This is important.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has roots that go back to at least the 1980s, when governors of the eight states in the basin began to work together on a series of regional compacts. (Minnesota’s Rudy Perpich was a founding member.)

Some of the objectives were environmental, some were economic, and many were both, because environmental and economic health are deeply intertwined in a system of lakes that not only holds 84 percent of North America’s surface freshwater but also, according to a 2011 study undertaken by the Michigan Sea Grant program, accounts for direct employment of about 1.5 million people, earning $62 billion a year.

During the George W. Bush administration, the governors’ efforts led to creation by executive order of a federal interagency task force, assigned to attempt some semblance of coordinated action among the thousands of separate programs being undertaken not only by federal agencies but state and local governments, Indian tribes, nonprofits, industry associations, private companies and more.

It was a big job, but there wasn’t much federal money moving toward it until President Barack Obama called for a $475 million appropriation in his budget for fiscal 2010.

Lesser amounts followed in fiscal years 2011 through 2013, for a total of about $1.3 billion over the four-year period. As with Minnesota’s Legacy program, the money is supposed to supplement and expand, not supplant, spending through pre-existing Great Lakes programs.

A drop in the basin

Even $1.3 billion is a far cry from what’s needed, and has long been known to be needed: In 2007, a Brookings study recommended an investment of $26 billion in restoration work — a sum it said would be repaid as much as fourfold, delivering $30 billion to $50 billion in short-term benefits and another $50 billion, at minimum, in long-term payoffs.

In the meantime, threats to the basin’s environmental and economic health have been growing, not receding. A few examples:

Article continues after advertisement

  • Algal blooms are on the rise again, despite longtime controls on phosphorus use in the basin. Fish consumption advisories are in place on all of the lakes because of contamination from mercury and other toxins.
  • Despite reductions in industrial pollution, these discharges are  responsible for 26 “severely degraded” areas in U.S. waters and another 17 in Canada.
  • And more than 180 invasive species, including zebra mussels and lampreys, are busily remaking ecosystems in ways that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated does a billion dollars in damage every five years.

GLRI is administered by the Bush-era task force, whose membership now includes nine Cabinet departments from Agriculture to Transportation, as well as the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

EPA at the apex

Coordinating the coordinators falls to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s Great Lakes National Program Office, at the Region 5 headquarters in Chicago. And EPA itself distributes the lion’s share of grants to the various partners, more than any other single agency.

Where does the money go? The bottoms-up answer to that question is that it has funded more than 1,700 programs of myriad kinds, from basic research to habitat restoration to environmental monitoring to public education. (A highly transparent, publicly accessible database of those programs is here.)

But GAO, as an auditing agency, was after a top-down kind of answer: Here are the goals enumerated in your four-year action plan; what specific measures of progress do you have to show for all that work?

And what it found was a series of … disconnects. Not examples of waste, or mismanagement, or even poor decision-making in terms of where, why or by whom the money was spent. Rather, it found, you know, objectives without metrics, projects that couldn’t be aligned with the mission statement, measurements that were being kept in ways that didn’t match up with work plans … perhaps not all that surprising in an effort to bring overdue emphasis to a venerable set of challenges.

Indeed, the GAO report acknowledges that the problems burdening the Great Lakes are not susceptible to quick solutions, even before GLRI entered the fray:

[We] reported in May 2002 that the pace of cleaning up the Great Lakes and restoring areas of concern was slower than anticipated by the United States and Canada.  In September 2004, we found that EPA monitoring efforts did not provide comprehensive information on the condition of the Great Lakes and that monitoring by other federal and state agencies yielded information that that did not cover all areas related to the condition of the Great Lakes or the entire Great Lakes Basin. In September 2009, EPA’s Office of the Inspector General reported that EPA had not developed an effective management framework to clean up contaminated sediments in the Great Lakes areas of concern.

Fast forward to the findings from GAO’s 16-month audit:

Assessments of GLRI progress could help GLRI stakeholders, Congress, and the public discern the extent to which the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem has been restored, as well as what has been achieved by the approximately $1.3 billion appropriated to the program since fiscal year  2010. However, the Action Plan measures of progress may not provide sufficiently comprehensive or useful information on GLRI progress because (1) some goals and objectives do not link to any measures that will allow EPA to assess progress toward achieving them; (2) the measures do not capture the results of many of the GLRI projects; (3) data used to evaluate some measures of progress may not be complete; and (4) some Task Force and state agency officials, subject matter experts, and EPA’s Science Advisory Board raised concerns about the usefulness of some measures or their targets for indicating progress toward the GLRI goals and objectives.

Article continues after advertisement

“Goals and objectives [that] do not link to any measures that will allow EPA to assess progress” certainly sounds like a bad thing, we might all agree, until we consider the leading illustration on this point.

An overarching goal of the action plan is that “development activities are planned and implemented in ways that are sensitive to environmental considerations and compatible with fish and wildlife and their habitats.”

A good thing, we might all agree, and if EPA were actually in charge of all development plans and projects in the basin, progress measures would be easy to design.

Decentralization’s the point

But thousands of development projects are undertaken by hundreds of developers, public and private, throughout the basin — and how one might measure their performance, individually or in some aggregation, against this goal is a little harder to envision. Should GLRI abandon such an important ambition, just because it’s not amendable to checklists and charts?

In other cases, GLRI money is funding research that is obviously important but hasn’t been linked to any specific goal in the action plan. One clear case in point is “efforts to develop new methods of controlling phragmites, an invasive plant.”

There’s little doubt that these reedy perennial grasses are trashing wetlands, beaches and fisheries, and that improved control methods are needed. But should research on this problem be assessed against some timetable or scorecard that can’t help but be arbitrary? Or abandoned because, until solutions are finally found, progress is hard to demonstrate?

To be sure, the report contains some examples that make you wish EPA was doing a little better on accountability. Addressing the issue of beach contamination by pollutants that threaten public health, the plan calls for a sanitary assessment of half the lakes’ high-priority beaches by next year, and use of rapid testing methods for unsafe conditions at one-third of them.

Measuring progress toward this goal seems like a simple matter of counting, and yet EPA is said to be still “considering options for evaluating and reporting” on such a key initiative. And, yeah, I guess I wonder what’s taking so long.

But after wading through 100 pages of this stuff,  I have a lot more questions about the value of GAO’s contributions on the accountability question than EPA’s.