Northeast-Midwest Institute Holds Congressional Great Lakes Orientation Program

The Northeast-Midwest Institute (NEMWI) hosted a Congressional Great Lakes Orientation program on March 29  that included attendees from congressional offices, administrative agencies, and non-governmental organizations. The purpose of the program was to provide a broad overview of key Great Lakes issues which were introduced in five different sessions. Topics covered during the program include governance structures in the Great Lakes, The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), invasive species in the Great Lakes, harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Great Lakes, and resiliency and water infrastructure in the Great Lakes.

Participants at the briefing included (an audio recording can be found here and individual presentation are linked below):

Session 1: Governance in the Great Lakes Region:

  • Dave Ullrich, Commissioner, Great Lakes Fishery Commission; & Advisor, the Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Cities and Towns Initiative
  • Victoria Pebbles, Program Director, Great Lakes Commission

Session 2: The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI)

  • Chris Korleski, Director, Great Lakes National Program Office, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • Chad Lord, Policy Director, Healing Our Waters Coalition
  • Matt Doss, Policy Director, Great Lakes Commission

Session 3: Invasive Species in the Great Lakes

  • Dr. Marc Gaden, Communications Director & Legislative Liaison, Great Lakes Fishery Commission
  • Aaron Woldt, Deputy Assistant Regional Director of Fisheries, US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Sheyda Esnaashari, Water Policy Strategist, Alliance for the Great Lakes

Session 4: Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in the Great Lakes

  • Gail Hesse, Great Lakes Water Program Director, National Wildlife Federation
  • Edwin Martinez, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Coordinator, Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Department of Agriculture

Session 5: Resiliency and water infrastructure in the Great Lakes

Kicking of the program, Matt McKenna, Director of the Great Lakes Washington Program at NEMWI, provided a brief overview of the agenda and introduced the panel. Leading the first session, Dave Ullrich, Commissioner of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission & Advisor to the Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Cities and Towns Initiatives, spoke about different government structures and organizations that shape the Great Lakes, including past treaties and laws that molded the Great Lakes that can be seen today. Additionally, he expressed concerns about the decentralized nature of planning put into Great Lakes activities as well as the need for increased funding to complete these projects. Next, Victoria Pebbles, Program Director of the Great Lakes Commission, spoke about different compacts, like the Great Lakes Basin Compact, and the impacts these legal documents have on governance in the Great Lakes.

The second session focused on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).  Chris Korleski, Director of the Great Lakes National Program Office at the EPA, spoke about the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, the GLRI Action Plan, and coordination among federal agencies. He discussed the importance of accountability and responsibility when properly delegating funds and manpower for the GLRI and other Great Lakes programs so there is no waste. He also spoke about the GLRI Action Plan III which will fund the GLRI from fiscal years 2020-2024 and on how money from the GLRI is allocated.

Chad Lord, the Policy Director of the Healing Our Waters Coalition, spoke about the role that NGO’s play in executing the GLRI. He offered information on how current funding is being spent on projects such as fighting invasive species, restorative work, helping farmers control runoff from their fields, and helping communities to restore wetlands and wildlife. He also discussed NGO’s and their more active role in the implementation side of Great Lakes work, adding that NGO’s are working on the ground and acting with states and local communities to complete different projects.

Matt Doss, the Policy Director for the Great Lakes Commission, spoke about Areas of Concern (AOC) in the Great Lakes and the steps that are being taken to restore these problem areas. He also provided background information on the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement which formally established the AOC program. He also discussed a recent study that the Commission, along with other organization, conducted finding that for every dollar invested in restoration, there’s a return of $3.35 in additional economic activity.

The third session focused on invasive species in the Great Lakes.  Mark Gaden, the Communication Director and Legislative Liaison of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, spoke about the challenges invasive species, like Asian Carp or Phragmites, impose on the Great Lakes. He also discussed provided the importance of fighting these invasive species, emphasizing that if actions aren’t taken now, the problem will continue to grow, and the region will continue to see economic losses.

Aaron Woldt, the Deputy Assistant Regional Director of Fisheries at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, discussed the federal government’s current role in fighting invasive species within the Great Lakes. He stressed the threat that Asian carp present to the Great Lakes through the destruction of native habitat and competition with native species for food. He also discussed the current deterrent technologies being implemented in the field to block the advance of invasive species in the nation’s waterways.

Sheyda Esnaashari, a Water Policy Strategist at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, continued the discussion about the threat Asian Carp pose to the Great Lakes and the current efforts to prevent their introduction. She highlighted the need to move forward a proposal to construct new deterrents at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Joliet, IL and similar projects that prevent the spread of Asian carp and other invasive species from traveling between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

The fourth panel focused on Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in the Great Lakes. Gail Hesse, the Great Lakes Water Program Director at the National Wildlife Federation, spoke about the source of HABs in the Great Lakes, which have been most commonly linked with agriculture runoff. She presented information on different agricultural practices that can lessen nutrient loading into our great bodies of water.  They include subsurface placement, soil test informed application rates, and erosion control and water management.

Edward Martinez, Coordinator for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), shared insights on work that the NRCS is conducting to improve water quality within the Great Lakes. He highlighted current NRCS projects like the Blanchard River Watershed project, which showcases conservation practices to improve Great Lakes water quality, and the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) initiative, which is accelerating conservation practices that reduce nutrient and sediment loadings.

The fifth and final session included a discussion by Victoria Pebbles about the growing stormwater and wastewater management challenges in the region. She highlighted techniques like green infrastructure that can serve as a key aspect of local stormwater solutions by decreasing the volume of water running into sewers and streams and improving water quality by trapping sediment and nutrients.