Great Lakes Restoration Initiative bringing waters back to life

By: Kevin Bunch | C&G Newspapers | Published April 23, 2014

METRO DETROIT — In the years since the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been underway, conditions in the lakes and the associated waterways have improved, according to officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

The GLRI program was established by the federal government five years ago, and it gives grants to local organizations and Great Lakes states — Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana — to help clean up or mitigate lake pollution and other long-term issues. According to a letter from U.S. Rep. Sander Levin’s office, $1.6 billion has been given out in grants since the program’s inception, with 547 of those grants going to Michigan, which is the largest recipient of funds.

Most recently, St. Clair Shores received a $250,000 GLRI grant to install rain gardens and pervious pavement at the Kyte Monroe Park, which should help treat storm water runoff before it reaches the lake. It is estimated by Levin’s office to prevent 95,000 gallons per rain event from reaching Lake St. Clair.

Other awards included $60,000 for Clinton River restoration work; $985,000 to restore the fish passage in the Red Run Headwaters in Troy; $499,000 to remove the dam at Danvers Pond and restore the stream there in Farmington; and $221,000 to restore the Black Creek Marsh and coastal wetlands on the Lake St. Clair waterfront.

According to John Allan, director of the DEQ’s Office of the Great Lakes, work with the GLRI program has been, overall, quite positive around metro Detroit.

“The Detroit River and the St. Clair River, in particular, are getting healthier,” Allan said. “We had some really good projects — the state of Michigan, and our local partners — in those local rivers, addressing long-term issues of fish, habitats and pollution.”

Roger Everhardt, environmental quality specialist, said that in addition to habitat restoration and making the rivers better for fish to spawn, the state and other organizations have been able to pull polluted sediment out of the waterways, particularly around the Black Lagoon, which is part of the Detroit River’s Trenton Channel.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 470,000 pounds of contaminants were removed from the lagoon during a cleanup project from 2004-2006, though that is unrelated to the GLRI program. The program did fund $14,000 for Trenton to plant aquatic vegetation for fish to spawn there, however.

“There are still a number of contaminated sediment sites along the west side of the Detroit River, and the Trenton Channel is being investigated,” Everhardt said. “The EPA is still negotiating upstream of the Trenton Channel, so that work is still to be done.”

The St. Clair River-Lake St. Clair area still has a number of GLRI-funded projects in the pipeline, with much of the funding spent so far going around the mouth of the Clinton River by Lake St. Clair, according to Allan.

That money has been used to reduce bacterial contamination and re-establish the wetlands there, which in turn can help manage nutrient pollution from fertilizer runoff, Allan said. That particular problem is one that plagues Lake Erie, especially.

Allan said the lake continues to suffer from sizable algae blooms every spring, as nutrients put into the soil run off into the waterways and get into the lake. At that point in the year, the algae are the primary benefactors, causing habitat problems for other marine life, like fish.

Groups in Michigan, Ohio and Ontario are trying to get a handle on the runoff — from wastewater treatment to farming to dredging, Allan said. The “nutrient loading” may be having a negative impact on attempts to get invasive species under control, too.

“Our focus is on nutrients and nutrient-loading on that lake, and what happens when those nutrients get there: the invasive species interaction,” he said. “I think nutrient-loading is part of that, with, like, zebra mussels and quagga mussels, but that’s something we need to understand.”

He added that Michigan has banned phosphorus from its fertilizers to reduce lake runoff.

The Obama administration is requesting $275 million for 2015 in the program, a 9 percent reduction from the previous year. Levin, along with U.S. Reps. John Dingell, D-MI; Louise Slaughter, D-NY; and David Joyce, R-OH, spearheaded a letter signed by 46 representatives to the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives to increase that number to $300 million — its current level.

“(Levin) felt it was very important to maintain the level of funding at $300 million next year so that the initiative can continue,” Jeff Drobnyk, Levin’s communications director, said.

Everhardt said poor waterway conditions mean it costs more to clean incoming water for drinking and sewer systems, and those costs get passed along to residents.

Chief of Great Lakes Management Rick Hobrla said cleaning up the waterways has a vital economic impact for recreation, as well as quality of life.

“For property values, clean water is important, but so is access to clean water,” Hobrla said. “We’re not just focusing on water and the fish, but also opportunities for people to get to the water. The waterfront in Detroit in the ’70s and ’80s was not inviting; it was not easy to get to the water. But now, with the riverfront trail and Milliken Park, there are a lot more communities focused on waterfront access.”