made with federal, state, and local funds. It was created to reduce the threat of flash flooding, decrease the phosphorus-rich sediment pouring into Lake Macatawa, minimize the resulting harmful algal blooms, and, ultimately, improve the water quality of both Lake Macatawa and Lake Michigan.
But on this October afternoon, exploring the park was a chance for my mother and me to spend a glorious, sunshiny day delighting in the first hints of autumn. Chattering and laughing like school children, we walked arm-in-am along the grassy paths until eventually coming to the river. Pausing, we honored my dad, a man who died three years ago that day, a man who found peace casting a fly rod from the banks of rivers similar to this one.
Scientists can and will measure the environmental value of this GLRI investment, but it is impossible to capture the benefit of moments and memories like this one.
I first learned about the GLRI ten years ago, shortly after my husband and I moved to western Michigan. Sitting in a jam-packed public hearing in Grand Rapids, I listened to a scientist explain that the Great Lakes ecosystem was at a tipping point. With a mixture of disbelief and heartbreaking sadness, I heard him say, “If steps are not taken immediately, damage to twenty percent of the world’s fresh surface water could be irreversible.”
The scientist was part of a diverse coalition of leaders and experts spanning the eight Great Lakes states and two provinces of Canada. Together, they created the GLRI, a detailed plan for reversing the damage, restoring the ecosystem, and converting “The Rust Belt” into a clean, healthy, economically vibrant place for over 35 million people to call home.
The GLRI was implemented in 2010 with strong bipartisan support. Approximately $1.6 billion was invested during fiscal years 2010 through 2014. Supplementing state, local, and private funds, the monies were used to fund projects focusing on five priority areas: cleaning up the forty-three most toxic harbors and waterways identified in the 1987 Clean Water Agreement between the U.S. and Canada; preventing invasive species (including the dreaded bighead and silver Asian carp) from entering the region while controlling the spread of Japanese knotweed, purple loosestrife, Phragmites and other invasive plants; addressing beach closings and nonpoint source pollution creating harmful algal issues across the region; restoring habitat and protecting native wildlife; and designing an accountability, education, and partnership approach to the GLRI project rollout.
The five-year report card on the GLRI was recently placed in the hands of President Obama and Congress. An overview follows. The report, with the majority of targets met or exceeded, is impressive. But we cannot reverse over one hundred years of degradation in five years. That is why a detailed Action Plan II for fiscal years 2015 through 2019 is also on their desks.
The report card gives us cause for hope. We know, and can now document, how to clean up our most contaminated harbors; how to reduce the toxic algal blooms, how to ensure our families have access to safe drinking water. It can happen community by community if we choose to prioritize our water.
Please take a minute to call, email, or Twitter your Congressional Representative. Ask him/her to continue to fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Our memories, as well as those of future generations, depend on it.
Five-Year Report Card on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative
35% of the funding focused on cleaning up the forty-three Areas of Concern (AOC)
For the twenty-three years prior to the launch of the GLRI, only one of these highly contaminated sites was cleaned up enough to be delisted. That was the Oswego River in New York. However, in 2013, Presque Isle Bay of Pennsylvania was also formerly delisted, and all cleanup actions required for delisting five other sites were completed. The sites are the Ashtabula River in Ohio, Deer Lake in Michigan, Sheboygan River in Wisconsin, Waukegan Harbor in Illinois, and White Lake in Michigan.
17% focused on preventing and controlling invasive species
Work is ongoing to monitor and prevent new invasive species from being introduced to the ecosystem, including the bighead and silver Asian carp. Agencies and partners controlled over 84,000 acres of property for invasive species such as Japanese knotweed, Phragmites, and purple loosestrife. According to the report, no new invasive species have been established since 2009.
18% went to reducing runoff that contributes to algal blooms
Agricultural land is the largest source of phosphorus runoff that fuels the growth of algal blooms. With GLRI support, the number of acres of farmland enrolled in agricultural conservation programs in priority watersheds increased by more than seventy percent. In addition, programs are underway in a number of shoreline cities to reduce stormwater runoff, stabilize stream banks, increase forest cover, and restore wetlands to improve the water quality at urban beaches.
21% focused on restoring habitat to protect native species
Over 100,000 acres of wetlands and 48,000 acres of coastal, upland, and island habitat were protected, restored, and enhanced; over 500 barriers were removed or bypassed in tributaries to enable fish and other aquatic organisms to access 3,400 additional miles of river; and conditions improved for a number of threatened species including the piping plover, Pitcher’s thistle, lakeside daisy, and Kirtland’s warbler.
9% went to creating accountability, education, monitoring, evaluation, and communication programs
Accountability mechanisms, management practices, and third-party oversight were implemented to manage the GLRI and address transparency and fiscal stewardship goals. In addition, over 1,500 educational institutions incorporated Great Lakes specific materials into their broader environmental education curricula, training over 175,000 students.
For a copy of the fiscal year 2010-2014 report card, visit:
For a copy of the Great Lakes Restoration Action Plan II for fiscal year 2015-2019, visit: http://greatlakesrestoration.us/index.html
10/22/2015 11:32:26 pm
First of all, that photo at Lake Macatawa is a keeper, Mary, emblematic of the legacy of a healthy environment that we are morally bound to maintain. Second, the golfer in me felt a twinge to know that a course had been reclaimed, but your description of the creation of Paw Paw Park was so heartening, especially as you tied it to your memorial walk with your mother. I'm sure your father's spirit was with you on that stroll! Once again, you have eloquently explained the situation, providing us hope that our efforts are making a difference. Your words remind us that the Great Lakes have a soul, and in you, they have a voice as well!
Mary Ellen Miller
10/23/2015 11:27:17 am
"The Week" magazine has a section entitled "Boring But Important"; for many readers that would describe the facts and figures on Great Lakes restoration. Thanks for telling a human, emotional story to illuminate and personalize those important statistics and present them as interesting and crucial. Your passion is obvious and contagious.
10/23/2015 03:42:57 pm
What a fantastic blog this month. Our Great Lakes, rivers, streams are all so important to preserve for following generations to enjoy. Thanks for your continued work on this subject.
10/26/2015 09:38:12 am
This is such amazingly wonderful news! I surely hope funding continues and more can be done.
10/26/2015 12:02:34 pm
Somehow or other I was oblivious to Phragmites as an invasive species...so I learned something here. I googled it for pictures. Actually I learned many things--this was super informative Mary. Thank you. I so appreciate you!
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