A decade of cleanup: Feds celebrate Great Lakes initiative

More than $2.7 billion has been pumped into projects to clean up old pollution and improve habitat.

A crane operator unloads sand from a barge onto Interstate Island on Monday, April 13, while heavy equipment operators move the sand around the island as part of a $1.4 million project to raise the tiny island and protect nesting terns. (Steve Kuchera /

Federal, state and local officials on Wednesday celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that’s been pumping billions of dollars into cleaning up toxic hotspots and restoring habitat along the region’s most degraded waterways.

First funded under the Obama administration in 2010, the cooperative effort has spent more than $2.7 billion on 5,400 different projects aimed at cleaning up legacy pollution, improving fish and wildlife habitat, reducing urban and agricultural runoff and keeping invasive species out of the Great Lakes.

Projects have been completed, or are still in the works or planned, across all eight Great Lakes states, from Minnesota to New York.

In 2020 alone, the program, which combines federal agency funding with state money and efforts by local and regional governments, universities and tribes, restored 88 different beneficial uses across the 31 most polluted locations along the U.S. portion of the Great Lakes, so-called Areas of Concern.

Those uses included fish that are safe to eat, or water that’s clean enough to swim in, or the scenery recovered enough so people want to spend time in and around the waterways.


In the Twin Ports, the program has helped clean up and cap toxic sediments to keep pollutants out of the fish, animal and human food chains. The program also has helped restore wildlife and fish habitat in the Duluth-Superior harbor and lower St. Louis River Estuary, including ongoing projects like the bolstering habitat on Interstate Island, a critical nesting spot for threatened terns.

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Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced the completion of another project in the Great Lakes cleanup , a $2 million effort that saw 850 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and capped an additional 55,000 cubic yards in the Azcon/Duluth Seaway Port Authority slip in Duluth. And earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded a $5 million grant to continue research at the Lake Superior Research Institute , an arm of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, to develop ballast water treatment methods for Great Lakes freighters at the institute’s Superior harbor-front testing facility.

In a 90-minute online meeting Wednesday, officials lauded the bipartisan efforts at both state and federal levels to continue funding through periods of both Republican- and Democratic-controlled government.

“Lake Superior and the rest of the St. Lawrence Seaway are national treasures,” said U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minnesota, who represents the state’s Lake Superior region.

Kurt Thiede, the EPA’s Region 5 administrator for the Great Lakes region, said recent focus has been both on preventing garbage from accumulating in the lakes and erecting barriers to keep invasive Asian carp from swimming in and overwhelming the ecosystem.

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“The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system on Earth, providing drinking water to more than 30 million Americans and supporting nearly 1.5 million jobs that generate over $80 billion in wages every year. The crucial importance of our shared success cannot be overstated,” Thiede said.

In 2019, the EPA started the Great Lakes Trash-Free Waters program, awarding seven grants totaling nearly $2.1 million to support community efforts to clean up beaches and water bodies. EPA will soon announce a second opportunity to apply for Trash-Free Waters program grants totaling $5 million in 2020 intended to fund projects that use mechanical devices, vessels and other technology to remove trash from Great Lakes harbors and waterfronts.


This year, EPA also provided $11 million in competitive grant funding for 20 projects that will reduce excess nutrients in the Great Lakes to stem the source of algae blooms.

House approves carp barrier

The U.S. House on Tuesday approved construction of the long-studied waterway project that's hoped to stop Asian carp from getting into the Great Lakes.

The barrier passed the chamber by voice vote as part of the final version of the Water Resources and Development Act. The bill is expected to be taken up in coming days by the Senate.

Lawmakers from both parties hailed the first-time authorization as a major milestone for the project to fortify the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Illinois, which engineers have identified as a likely point to halt the spread of the invasive carp species from the Illinois River system into Lake Michigan. The bill also increases the federal cost share for the project from 65% to 80%, but Congress will still need to allocate the actual money in a budget bill. The state of Illinois will pay for 20%.

The bill also includes flood control measures for the Great Lakes.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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