Great Lakes:

An Overall Strategy and Indicators for Measuring Progress Are Needed to Better Achieve Restoration Goals

GAO-03-515: Published: Apr 30, 2003. Publicly Released: May 21, 2003.

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The five Great Lakes, which comprise the largest system of freshwater in the world, are threatened on many environmental fronts. To address the extent of progress made in restoring the Great Lakes Basin, which includes the lakes and surrounding area, GAO (1) identified the federal and state environmental programs operating in the basin and funding devoted to them, (2) evaluated the restoration strategies used and how they are coordinated, and (3) assessed overall environmental progress made in the basin restoration effort.

There are 148 federal and 51 state programs funding environmental restoration activities in the Great Lakes Basin. Most of these programs involve the localized application of national or state environmental initiatives and do not specifically focus on unique basin concerns. However, several programs specifically address environmental conditions in the Great Lakes. GAO identified 33 federal Great Lakes specific programs, and states funded 17 additional unique Great Lakes specific programs. Other governmental, bi-national, and nongovernmental organizations also fund restoration activities within the basin. GAO identified several Great Lakes environmental strategies being used at the bi-national, federal, and state levels. These strategies are not coordinated or unified in a fashion comparable to other large restoration projects such as the South Florida Ecosystem. In an effort to improve coordination, federal and state officials recently published Great Lakes Strategy 2002, but this document is largely a description of existing and planned program activities rather than an overarching plan. EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office has coordination authority over many activities but has not fully exercised it to this point. With available information, it is not possible to comprehensively assess restoration progress in the Great Lakes. Current indicators rely on limited quantitative data and subjective judgments to determine whether conditions are improving, such as whether fish are safe to eat. The ultimate success of an ongoing bi-national effort to develop a set of overall indicators for the Great Lakes is uncertain because it relies on the resources voluntarily provided by several organizations. Further, no date for completing a final list of indicators has been established.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To fulfill the need for a monitoring system called for in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) and to ensure that the limited funds available are optimally spent, the Administrator, EPA should, in coordination with Canadian officials and as part of an overarching Great Lakes strategy, develop environmental indicators and a monitoring system for the Great Lakes Basin that can be used to measure overall restoration progress.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation was addressed through executive order 13340, May 18, 2004, to establish a Great Lakes Interagency Task Force to develop a Great Lakes strategy. The strategy was completed in December 2005. (John Wanska)

    Recommendation: To improve coordination of Great Lakes activities and ensure that federal dollars are effectively spent, the Administrator, EPA should submit a time-phased funding requirement proposal to the Congress necessary to implement the strategy.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation was addressed through executive order 13340, May 18, 2004, to establish a Great Lakes Interagency Task Force to develop a Great Lakes strategy. The strategy was completed in December 2005. (John Wanska)

    Recommendation: To improve coordination of Great Lakes activities and ensure that federal dollars are effectively spent, the Administrator, EPA should charge GLNPO with developing, in consultation with the governors of the Great Lakes states, federal agencies, and other organizations, an overarching strategy that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities for coordinating and prioritizing funding for projects.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation was addressed through executive order 13340, May 18, 2004, to establish a Great Lakes Interagency Task Force to develop a Great Lakes strategy. The strategy was completed in December 2005. (John Wanska)

    Recommendation: To improve coordination of Great Lakes activities and ensure that federal dollars are effectively spent, the Administrator, EPA should ensure that the Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) fulfills its responsibility for coordinating programs within the Great Lakes Basin.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation was addressed through executive order 13340, May 18, 2004, to establish a Great Lakes Interagency Task Force to develop a Great Lakes strategy. The strategy was completed in December 2005. (John Wanska)

    Recommendation: To fulfill the need for a monitoring system called for in the GLWQA and to ensure that the limited funds available are optimally spent, the Administrator, EPA should, in coordination with Canadian officials and as part of an overarching Great Lakes strategy, require that these indicators be used to evaluate, prioritize, and make funding decisions on the merits of alternative restoration projects.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation was addressed through executive order 13340, May 18, 2004, to establish a Great Lakes Interagency Task Force to develop a Great Lakes strategy. The strategy was completed in December 2005. (John Wanska)

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