Great Lakes Restoration Projects Face an Uncertain Future

Brad Mudrzynski wades through cattails in Buck Pond (photo: Veronica Volk)
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By Veronica Volk

A cove on the South Shore of Lake Ontario near Rochester, N.Y., called Buck Pond is undergoing a transformation.

Brad Mudrzynski, a graduate student working in the cove, says, "One of the focus points of this project is to create northern pike spawning habitat."

His team and their other partners on the project are digging channels through the thick marsh to help pike get closer to shore and lay their eggs. Right now, they are inhibited by and invasive species of cattail.

Mudrzynski and the team are cutting the cattails and targeting them with a special weed killer. Their plan is to keep the cattails at bay.

"That's the hope," he says. "This is the first big scale-up of the cattail killing design and it looks promising in this area after just one year.”

This project is funded by the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative -- a program that has an uncertain future.

It was put in place in 2010 and every year allocates $300 million to projects in the watershed. Some project focus on habitat restoration and invasive species mitigation, like the one at Buck Pond, but others address toxic substances and sources of pollution near the shore.

Mudrzynski says almost all the habitat restoration projects they are currently working on are possible because of the GLRI.

"It has been such a boom for the conservation programs in the local area,” he says. "It's paid my entire salary for six years."

Further west, Jill Jedlicka with the Buffalo River Keeper says they regularly apply to access resources available through the GLRI for a variety of projects along the Buffalo River.

"They can range everywhere from the small scale, localized habitat restoration or shoreline improvement programs, to the large-scale full river restoration that was the Buffalo River Restoration," she says.

However, there is some question about whether this funding will be available in the future.

Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump has vowed to defund the federal Environmental Protection Agency, through which all GLRI funds are allocated.

The GLRI is just one program run through the EPA that funds restoration projects in the watershed, but as of June 2016, the agency has doled out over $1.6 billion to universities, nonprofits, and other organizations across the region, specifically for the Great Lakes.

Those who work on the ground, like Jedlicka, say continuity is very important to the success of these long-term projects and protecting that investment.

"If the GLRI funding went away or was tremendously scaled back that would definitely put at risk all of the gains that we've made in recent years," she says. "When you commit to ecosystem restoration it has to be for the long haul.”

A spokesperson for the EPA says it is hard to speculate on whether the initiative would stop altogether, or continue through a different federal agency.

Note: An earlier version of this story misstated funding totals for the EPA and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

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