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Their view: Great Lakes work needs to continue

Duluth News Tribune

As Duluth News Tribune editorials have been pointing out for nearly a decade, the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative works. And deserves — no, needs — to continue to be allowed to do good.

The initiative has been powering Great Lakes cleanup efforts since the presidency of George W. Bush. With adequate and appropriate funding under President Barack Obama, the initiative has removed mercury and other contaminants from river bottoms and lake bottoms; has made water swimmable, fishable, and even drinkable again; and otherwise has turned environmental disasters into cleanup successes. In Duluth, along the St. Louis River, the initiative has been responsible for the restoration of wild rice beds, sturgeon spawning grounds, and the habitats of piping plover and other nesting birds, among other projects.

Under President Donald Trump, funding for the initiative, despite all its benefits, has been threatened at least twice. But the initiative remains alive, even it's under a cloud of healthy skepticism from the White House.

And thank goodness it does. A report in September — received and considered by the Great Lakes Commission while it was meeting here in Duluth — estimated a backlog of needed upgrades and repairs to wastewater-treatment plants, stormwater pipes, drinking-water filtration systems, and other water-related infrastructure around the Great Lakes at a whopping $271 billion. That included an estimated $25 billion of deferred work in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

With an annual federal appropriation of about $300 million, pollution hot spots and other problems can't be taken care of all at once. But slow and steady progress is making a difference.

"We're actually working to try and get more out of appropriations, and we may have a chance of doing that," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said in an interview with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board. "For too long the Great Lakes have been the kind of Cinderella in all of this, (as we saw) some of the money that went to the ports on the oceans and other things. ... We've got, of course, the locks, the Soo Locks and other things that we need to take care of."

Indeed. Even with priorities being checked off, the to-do list remains long.

So what's next up for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which can be found online at glri.us? Actually, the public can help decide. The EPA is hosting an informal public engagement session from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the EPA Mid-Continent Ecology Division, 6201 Congdon Boulevard, as it begins to consider its next action plan. The session in Duluth is one of six.

Priorities and goals for the next action plan, which will cover fiscal years 2020 through 2024, are expected to address toxic substances and areas of concern, invasive species, nonpoint source pollution impacts on nearshore health, habitats, species, and future restoration actions.

The progress made by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has to continue. Political will and adequate dollars are great and can continue to rebuild, clean up, and care for the Great Lakes. Public engagement is needed, too.

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