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Obama administration proposes updated Great Lakes plan with more emphasis on climate change

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - The Obama administration on Friday proposed an updated five-year blueprint for Great Lakes environmental protection that would put greater emphasis on climate change and using science to choose cleanup projects.

Congress has appropriated $1.6 billion since 2009 for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which targets what experts consider the most pressing threats to the freshwater seas: toxic contamination, invasive species, loss of wildlife habitat and runoff that causes noxious algae blooms. The administration is proposing a second phase that would continue work in those areas while addressing concerns about how well the program is meeting its objectives.

"Protecting communities around the Great Lakes and restoring this important ecosystem is a national and binational imperative," said Gina McCarthy, chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which co-ordinates the program with support from 10 other federal departments.

They have awarded more than 2,100 grants to universities, nonprofits, tribes and government agencies across the eight-state region for projects including removal of sediments laced with toxic chemicals, rebuilding wetlands and uprooting invasive plants. The program also has supported the fight to prevent aggressive Asian carp from reaching the lakes.

A federal task force developed the new installment in consultation with regional stakeholder groups, said Cameron Davis, a senior adviser to McCarthy. A final version is to be adopted by Oct. 1, allowing time for public comment.

In addition to redoubling efforts in the four problem areas, it calls for taking climate change into account in new projects. Wetland plants and trees would be selected for suitability to warmer temperatures. Watershed restorations would be designed to cope with more frequent and intense storms, which could cause heavier erosion and runoff. The task force would produce climate resilience criteria and update it yearly.

Another new feature seeks to strengthen the scientific basis for choosing restoration projects and determining how well they're meeting the program's goals. While the Great Lakes initiative is popular with many advocacy groups and government officials in the region, some complain that too little money has gone to research and many projects have lacked a clear scientific rationale.

"For the first time, we'll articulate a methodical way by which we use the best available science to continue to make the best possible investments," Davis said.

Allen Burton, director of a University of Michigan program that seeks long-term, systemwide solutions to Great Lakes problems, said the proposal is an improvement but doesn't go far enough. In addition to using data from existing and completed projects to select new ones, the program should weave scientific measurements into projects from the beginning so their performance can be evaluated along the way, he said.

The plan's approach is "after-the-fact and project-specific," Burton said. "You're not learning as much about what worked and didn't work. You're not adapting your process to make it better, because the project's already done."

The Great Lakes Advisory Board, a group representing a variety of interests in the region, is mostly pleased with the blueprint, said its chairman, David Ullrich. But he also said the plan relies too much on simply listing the number of projects dealing with particular issues to measure progress.

Todd Ambs, director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said the new plan "sets the stage to make a strong program even better, including mechanisms to clearly measure the success of these investments."

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Follow John Flesher on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JohnFlesher

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