As 2016 just came to a close (thank God), we might as well reflect back on the year’s milestone events that impacted the fish and wildlife of our Great Lakes. While the year held many successes, there are also many challenges that remain for us to tackle in the coming year. Here are just a few positive highlights of 2016.
I would like to acknowledge my colleague Jordan Lubetkin for his work in helping pull this list together…
Presidential Candidates Commit to Great Lakes Restoration
The presidential campaign dominated the news cycle in 2016, and a substantial part of our work this last year involved drawing the attention of major party candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to the importance of the Great Lakes. At the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition’s annual conference in September, both campaigns expressed support for continuing federal funding for Great Lakes restoration efforts, recognizing the importance of the successful and popular Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. In an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, candidate Trump again pledged his support to Great Lakes restoration efforts as well as upholding the Clean Water Act. These commitments are hugely important to the people of the Great Lakes region. Now, the trick is working with President-elect Trump to ensure these campaign promises are followed through with in 2017 and beyond.
Congress Authorizes Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Signaling Long-term Commitment
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has enjoyed success for the last seven years producing results across the region with funding levels consistently at or above $300 million per year. However, the program was never authorized, so funding levels were subject to the interest and support from members of Congress and the President. Thanks to the Water Infrastructure Investments for the Nation Act (formerly the Water Resources Development Act), which passed in late December, the popular Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been authorized for five years at $300 million annually. In the coming year, all of us will need to push the incoming administration and members of Congress to fully fund the initiative to keep making progress restoring the Great Lakes.
People of Flint, Mich., Confront Lead Poisoning
Many people in Flint, Mich., still need to use bottled water to drink and bathe with due to ongoing lead contamination in their tap water. The water crisis has been going on since April 2014 when the city’s water was switched away from the Detroit-run Great Lakes Water Authority to Flint River water. Corroding pipes made the city water supply toxic, and many homes remain without effective water filters today. Tens of thousands of water service lines must now be replaced. In December, the U.S. Congress authorized funding for the city to address the monumental cost of replacement, which is good news. In the coming year we will be on the ground in Flint, working to ensure that the funding is spent wisely and reflecting the needs of the community. There is also important work to be done advancing funding for water infrastructure investments in the Great Lakes region and around the country. Old and crumbling wastewater plants and drinking water pipes should be a thing of the past, but without investment now—the nation faces more than $655 billion in needed upgrades, repairs and replacement—they will remain a problem for our future.
Conservation Leaders Beat Back attempt to Weaken Protections against Invasive Species
If you live here in the Great Lakes, you certainly know that aquatic invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels are huge problems. Nationally, such invaders cost people, communities, businesses and utilities billions of dollars in damages and control costs. One of the main pathways these invaders take to enter U.S. waters is through boats emptying their dirty ballast water. In November, in fact, the EPA announced the discovery of a small non-native crustacean in western Lake Erie. The discovery followed months of aggressive lobbying by some federal lawmakers to roll back Clean Water Act protections to keep such invaders out of U.S. waters. Thankfully, a consortium of conservation groups worked with public officials to stop attempts to scuttle the most effective tool we have at stopping further invasions. The U.S. EPA is expected to announce stronger ballast water protections in 2017. Moving forward, conservation groups will need to work to uphold the Clean Water Act and its protections against non-native species.
Region Grapples with First Great Lakes Diversion Request
Ever since the historic 2008 passage of a regional Great Lakes water conservation pact in 2008, all eyes have been on Waukesha, Wis. The community outside Milwaukee desired Great Lakes water—and its application for a diversion was the first test of the Great Lakes Compact. The city’s initial flawed application—asking for more water than needed, failing to take into account current water sources or treatment options, and including communities that had not asked for Great Lakes water—raised alarm bells with Great Lakes advocates. Conservation groups worked with governors and premieres to revise the application to ensure it met the standards of the Compact and protect the Great Lakes.
States, Feds Hobble Along to Help Lake Erie
Two years ago, a harmful algal bloom in western Lake Erie poisoned drinking water for more than 400,000 people for three days. You would think that crisis would inspire a sense of urgency to solve the problem. Not quite. The good news is that in 2015, one year after the drinking water crisis, the states of Michigan and Ohio joined with the Canadian province of Ontario in signing a landmark agreement to cut harmful-algal-bloom producing phosphorus runoff from farms and other sources. Since that time, it’s been slow going. The state of Ohio’s failure to list the western Lake Erie as “impaired” under the Clean Water Act denies additional resources and expertise to help restore the lakes. Michigan has been mildly better. Both states are on the hook for action plans to reduce excessive nutrients into the lake. For its part, the U.S. EPA has refused to even act on Ohio’s and Michigan’s assessments of Lake Erie. State and federal agencies need to step up to the plate in 2017 to start making a dent in this problem.
Researchers Underscore Threat of Oil Spill in Great Lakes
In March 2016, the University of Michigan published a study detailing the risk of a potential oil spill in the Great Lakes at the Straits of Mackinac, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet. The study modeled what would happen under various spill scenarios, concluding that more than 700 miles of shoreline in Michigan were vulnerable to an oil spill from the twin pipelines known as Line 5. Later in the year, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a settlement with Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge Energy regarding the company’s 2010 oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, which was the largest inland oil disaster in U.S. history. 2017 will be an important year in the effort to protect the Great Lakes from a potential oil disaster: Michigan’s Pipeline Safety Advisory Board will publish a risk and alternatives analysis showing the best options for how to diminish or remove the threat, and a federal judge may decide a case brought by the National Wildlife Federation arguing that the Department of Transportation failed to assess potential impacts to the environment and endangered species and therefore illegally approved the pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.
Obama Administration Rejects Risky Mining near Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
In a major victory for people who care about wildlife, wild places, and opportunities to fish, hunt, canoe, swim, and hike, two federal agencies rejected risky mines near the iconic Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The Boundary Waters area contains more than a million acres of lakes and forests and is visited by more than 150,000 people every year. Although the mining leases were originally issued in 1966, no extraction has ever taken place, leaving the area largely pristine. Strong public concerns about acid mine drainage and other pollution that would threaten the area contributed to the government’s decision to deny the lease renewal.