A host of federal agencies known as the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force have laid out a comprehensive “action plan” for the next five years to protect water quality, control invasive species and restore habitat in the Great Lakes, the largest surface fresh water system in the world.
It’s also the largest conservation initiative in American history, says Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The task force, created by an Executive Order in 2004, includes eleven U.S. Cabinet and federal Agency heads. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy chairs the task force, which released the latest action plan on September 24 in Chicago.
“The new Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan lays out the steps we need to take to get us closer to the day when all Great Lakes fish will be safe to eat, all beaches will be safe for swimmers and harmful algal blooms will not threaten our drinking water supplies,” said McCarthy. “During the next five years, federal agencies will continue to use Great Lakes Restoration Initiative resources to strategically target the biggest threats to the Great Lakes ecosystem and to accelerate progress toward long term goals.”
The first phase of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) was launched in 2010; the action plan announced last month—Action Plan II—summarizes the actions federal agencies plan to implement during Fiscal Years 2015 through 2019 using GLRI funding.
The long-term goals for the Great Lakes ecosystem are:
- Fish safe to eat
- Water safe for recreation
- Safe source of drinking water
- Harmful/nuisance algal blooms eliminated
- No new self-sustaining invasive species
- Existing invasive species controlled
- Native habitat protected and restored to sustain native species
- All geographic “areas of concern” (AOCs) delisted
During the first five years of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, federal agencies and their partners removed 42 Beneficial Use Impairments in 17 Areas of Concern — quadrupling the number of Beneficial Use Impairments removed in the preceding 22 years.
Under GLRI Action Plan II, federal agencies will continue to remove 34 more Beneficial Use Impairments in the remaining 29 Areas of Concern. These Beneficial Use Impairments include beach closings, restrictions on drinking water consumption, nuisance algal blooms, restrictions on dredging, fish and wildlife deformities, restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, loss of fish and wildlife habitat. Federal agencies also intend to complete all management actions required to delist these AOCs:
- Buffalo River
- Clinton River
- Grand Calumet River
- Manistique River
- Menominee River
- Muskegon Lake
- River Raisin
- Rochester Embayment
- St. Clair River
- St. Marys River
In other Action Plan II initiatives the federal agencies will:
- Further evaluate emerging contaminants that have the greatest potential to adversely impact Great Lakes fish and wildlife – “impacts which may also result in ecological, economic and recreational consequences.”
- Continue to prevent new invasive species from establishing self-sustaining populations in the Great Lakes ecosystem. They “will work to increase the effectiveness of existing surveillance programs by establishing a coordinated, multi-species early detection network.”
- Continue to restore sites degraded by aquatic, wetland and terrestrial invasive species; they will also continue to develop and enhance technologies to control Great Lakes invasive species. “Federal agencies will also develop and enhance invasive species ‘collaboratives’ to support rapid responses and to communicate the latest control and management techniques.”
- Work to reduce nutrient runoff in watersheds targeted through the GLRI adaptive management process. This work is intended, among other things, to advance drinking water source protection and “increase voluntary agricultural conservation practices to achieve downstream water quality improvements.”
- Implement watershed management and green infrastructure projects to reduce the impacts of polluted urban runoff on nearshore water quality at beaches and in other coastal areas. “These projects will capture or slow the flow of untreated runoff and filter out sediment, nutrients, toxic contaminants, pathogens and other pollutants prior to entering Great Lakes tributaries and nearshore waters.”
- Implement protection, restoration and enhancement projects focused on open water, nearshore, connecting channels, coastal wetland and other habitats in the Great Lakes basin. Projects will include: removal of dams and replacing culverts to create fish habitat and reconnect migratory species to Great Lakes tributaries; restoration of riparian and in-stream habitat to prevent erosion and to create sufficient habitat for aquatic species; protection and restoration of coastal wetlands; and implementation of offshore reef rehabilitation projects to promote natural fish spawning.
- Work to maintain, restore and enhance populations of native fish and wildlife species. Projects will protect and restore species diversity; reintroduce populations of native species to restored habitats and evaluate their survival; and protect or restore species that are culturally significant to tribes in the Great Lakes region.
- Develop “standardized climate resiliency criteria” that will be used to design and select GLRI projects.
In addition to the EPA and USDA, the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force comprises the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, State and Transportation.
Edible fish, a handle on invasive species and watershed management: yes, it is every bit the largest conservation and remediation project in U.S. history.
Image: Logo from the GLRI Action Plan report