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Report: Great Lakes cleanup helpful but needs better way to judge success

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An Obama administration program that has spent more than $1.3 billion on healing the troubled Great Lakes needs a better scorecard for measuring its performance, a government watchdog report released Friday says.

The analysis by the Government Accountability Office does not pass judgment on how well the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is working, while acknowledging that federal officials and advocacy groups believe it's making significant progress on pollution cleanup and other problems.

But it says a plan for running the program devised by the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments is short on yardsticks for confirming those impressions.

"Without useful measures, EPA may not be able to determine that GLRI efforts are producing the desired results," says the report by the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress.

The Obama administration began funding the program in 2010, based on a priority list compiled by state, local and tribal officials, academics and advocacy groups. It's based on scientific findings that the lakes face pervasive threats—primarily invasive species, toxic contamination, runoff from farms and cities, and loss of wildlife habitat—that could devastate fish populations and undermine ecosystems.

The lakes provide drinking water to more than 30 million people and are an economic pillar for eight states and two Canadian provinces.

The initiative has funded more than 1,700 projects, from wetland restorations to removal of contaminated sediments from harbors and river mouths. It has supported the fight to ward off Asian carp—ravenous fish that have infested the Mississippi River and are moving toward the lakes.

Some scientists say the program has devoted too little money to basic research and monitoring needed to make sure the hands-on projects serve broad goals as well as local needs. The GAO report appears to echo those concerns.

"We recognize the potentially significant contributions that individual GLRI projects can make to resolving specific environmental and public health stresses that threaten the Great Lakes," it says. "However, we believe that these contributions need to be viewed in the context of larger factors affecting the Great Lakes" so strategies can be developed "to help ensure the best possible outcome."

Achieving the program's goals could be hampered by factors beyond its control, such as climate change and substandard infrastructure that allows polluted wastewater and storm runoff to reach the lakes, the report said.

Susan Hedman, EPA's Great Lakes National Program Manager, told the GAO in a letter that her agency agrees with most of its findings.

Hedman said a management plan for the next five-year phase of the program, scheduled to begin in 2015, will include more progress measurements and take climate change into greater account. But linking broad environmental change to any specific project is difficult, she said.

When the program began four years ago, there was such a huge backlog of cleanup projects that monitoring was less of a priority, said Todd Ambs, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which lobbies for continued funding.

"We know now that it's money well spent and producing great site-specific results," Ambs said. "So now is a good time to tie those results together with broader measurements of how these investments are affecting the overall health of the Great Lakes basin."
 

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