Great Lakes: A Coordinated Strategic Plan and Monitoring System Are Needed to Achieve Restoration Goals

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-07-16.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                             United States General Accounting Office

GAO                          Testimony
                             Before the Subcommittee on Oversight of
                             Government Management, the Federal Workforce
                             and the District of Columbia, Committee on
                             Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate
For Release on Delivery
Expected at 10:00 a.m. EDT
Wednesday, July 16, 2003     GREAT LAKES
                             A Coordinated Strategic
                             Plan and Monitoring System
                             Are Needed to Achieve
                             Restoration Goals
                             Statement of John B. Stephenson, Director
                             Natural Resources and Environment

                                               July 16, 2003

                                               GREAT LAKES

                                               A Coordinated Strategic Plan and
Highlights of GAO-03-999T, a report to the     Monitoring System Are Needed to
Subcommittee on Oversight of
Government Management, the Federal             Achieve Restoration Goals
Workforce and the District of Columbia,
Senate Committee on Governmental

The five Great Lakes, which                    There are 148 federal and 51 state programs funding environmental
comprise the largest system of                 restoration activities in the Great Lakes Basin. Most of these programs are
freshwater in the world, are                   nationwide or statewide programs that do not specifically focus on the Great
threatened on many environmental               Lakes. However, several programs specifically address environmental
fronts. To address the extent of               conditions in the Great Lakes. GAO identified 33 federal Great Lakes
progress made in restoring the
Great Lakes Basin, which includes
                                               specific programs, and states funded 17 additional unique Great Lakes
the lakes and surrounding area,                specific programs. Although Great Lakes funding is not routinely tracked for
GAO (1) identified the federal and             many of these programs, we identified a total of about $3.7 billion in basin-
state environmental programs                   specific projects for fiscal years 1992 through 2001.
operating in the basin and the
funding devoted to them, (2)                   GAO identified several Great Lakes environmental strategies being used at
evaluated the restoration strategies           the binational, federal, and state levels. These strategies are not coordinated
used and how they are coordinated,             or unified in a fashion comparable to other large restoration projects, such
and (3) assessed overall                       as the South Florida ecosystem. Without an overarching plan for these
environmental progress made in                 strategies, it is difficult to determine overall progress. The Water Quality Act
the basin restoration effort.                  of 1987 charged EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office with the
                                               responsibility for coordinating federal actions for improving the Great Lakes’
                                               water quality, however, it has not fully exercised this authority to this point.
GAO recommended in its April
2003 report that the Administrator,            With available information, it is not possible to comprehensively assess
Environmental Protection Agency                restoration progress in the Great Lakes. Current indicators rely on limited
(EPA)                                          quantitative data and subjective judgments to determine whether conditions
•   ensure that the Great Lakes                are improving, such as whether fish are safe to eat. The ultimate success of
    National Program Office                    an ongoing binational effort to develop a set of overall indicators for the
    fulfills its coordination
                                               Great Lakes is uncertain because it relies on the resources voluntarily
    responsibilities and develop an
    overarching Great Lakes                    provided by several organizations. Further, no date for completing a final
    strategy; and                              list of indicators has been established.
•   develop environmental
    indicators and a monitoring                Great Lakes: Largest Body of Freshwater in the World
    system for the Great Lakes
    Basin that can be used to
    measure overall restoration
EPA generally agreed with GAO’s
conclusions that better planning,
coordination, monitoring and the
development of indicators are
needed, and stated it would provide
the Congress, GAO, and the Office
of Management and Budget with a
formal response to the report
recommendations at a later date.
www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt? GAO-03-999T.

To view the full report, including the scope
and methodology, click on the link above.
For more information, contact John
Stephenson at (202) 512-3841 or John
Wanska at (312) 220-7628.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

We are pleased to be here today to discuss our work on environmental
restoration activities in the Great Lakes Basin. As you know, the Great
Lakes represent the largest system of freshwater in the world and a natural
resource that is threatened on many environmental fronts. To protect this
resource and to address common water quality problems, the United
States and Canada entered into the bilateral Great Lakes Water Quality
Agreement (GLWQA) in 1972. However, today, more than three decades
after the original agreement was signed, beaches are frequently closed to
swimmers due to pollution, fish are unsafe for high risk individuals to eat,
and raw sewage is still being dumped into the lakes.

Progress has been made on a number of significant fronts, including
controlling the nonnative sea lamprey, reducing the water’s phosphorus
content, and improving fish populations, but much more remains to be
accomplished before the overall goals of the agreement can be met.
Several recently released reports, including ours, have questioned whether
the current environmental activities in the Great Lakes being funded by
numerous organizations and various programs have resulted in significant
restoration progress in the basin, or even whether they are adequate to
fulfill the United States commitments under the agreement. In 2002, we
reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needed to take
action to improve its oversight for cleaning up specifically designated
contaminated areas.1

My testimony today is based on our April 2003 report, which was prepared
at the request of 14 members of Congress’ Great Lakes Task Force.
Specifically, GAO was asked to (1) identify the federal and state
environmental programs operating in the Great Lakes Basin and the
funding being devoted to them, (2) evaluate how the restoration strategies
are used and coordinated, and (3) assess overall environmental progress
made in the basin restoration efforts thus far.

In summary, Mr. Chairman, we found the following:

See U.S. General Accounting Office, Great Lakes: EPA Needs to Define Organizational
Responsibilities Better for Effective Oversight and Cleanup of Contaminated Areas,
GAO-02-563 (Washington, D.C.: May 17, 2002).

Page 1                                                                  GAO-03-999T
•   There are 148 federal and 51 state programs funding environmental
    restoration activities in the Great Lakes Basin. Most of these are
    nationwide or statewide programs that do not specifically focus on the
    Great Lakes, but do fund projects that help clean up the basin. We could
    not determine the total Great Lakes specific funding contributions from
    these programs, because funds are not typically tracked for specific areas
    such as the basin. However, based on partial information available from 11
    federal agencies and 7 of the 8 Great Lakes states, we determined that at
    least $1.8 billion in federal funding and $461.3 million in state funding went
    to basin-related projects in fiscal years 1992 through 2001. In addition,
    there were 33 federal programs focused specifically on the Great Lakes
    Basin, for which about $387 million was spent in fiscal years 1992 through
    2001, and the states funded 17 additional Great Lakes specific programs,
    for which about $956 million was expended during the same general time

•   The numerous restoration programs operating in the Great Lakes Basin
    employ a variety of environmental strategies at the binational, federal, and
    state levels to address specific environmental problems, but there is no
    overarching plan for coordinating these disparate strategies and program
    activities into a coherent approach for attaining overall basin restoration
    goals. Without such a plan for the basin, it is difficult to determine overall
    progress and ensure that limited resources are being used effectively.
    Other large-scale ecosystem restoration efforts, such as those for the
    Chesapeake Bay and the South Florida ecosystem, have demonstrated the
    importance of having a comprehensive strategic plan with clearly
    articulated goals, objectives, and criteria for measuring success and a
    decision-making body for weighing the merits of, and prioritizing funding
    for, proposed cleanup and restoration projects.

•   The absence of a unified Great Lakes restoration effort stems, in part, from
    the lack of an effective, authoritative organizational entity for planning,
    monitoring, and establishing funding priorities. The Clean Water Quality
    Act of 1987 charged EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO)
    with the responsibility for coordinating federal actions for improving the
    Great Lakes’ water quality. However, GLNPO has not fully exercised this
    authority. For example, it has not entered into agreements with other
    agency organizations regarding their restoration responsibilities, as
    required by the Clean Water Act.

•   Additionally, the lack of consistent, reliable information and measurement
    indicators makes it impossible to comprehensively assess restoration
    progress in the Great Lakes Basin. While the Great Lakes Water Quality
    Agreement long ago called for the development and implementation of a

    Page 2                                                            GAO-03-999T
             monitoring system, this requirement has not yet been met. Furthermore,
             any effort to develop indicators must rely on limited quantitative data and
             subjective judgments to determine whether conditions are improving. In
             1996, a binational effort was initiated to develop a set of overall indicators
             for the Great Lakes through a series of biennial conferences, but the
             ultimate success of this effort, which relies on the volunteer contributions
             of several organizations, is uncertain at best.

             To improve coordination and help ensure that funds are spent effectively,
             we recommended that the Administrator, Environmental Protection
             Agency, (1) charge GLNPO with the responsibility for developing an
             overarching Great Lakes strategy with specific goals and priorities for
             evaluating and funding alternative projects, (2) submit a proposal to
             Congress for funding the plan, and (3) develop environmental indicators
             and a monitoring system that can be used to measure overall restoration
             progress. EPA generally agreed with our conclusions but stated that it
             would provide a formal response to our recommendations at a later date.

             The Great Lakes Basin is a large area that extends well beyond the five
Background   lakes proper to include their watersheds, tributaries, connecting channels,
             and a portion of the St. Lawrence River. The basin encompasses nearly all
             of the state of Michigan and parts of Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, New
             York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of
             Ontario. The lakes form the largest freshwater system on earth, accounting
             for 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water and over 95 percent of the
             U.S. fresh surface water supply for the contiguous 48 states.

             Millions of people in the United States and Canada rely on the five Great
             Lakes—Superior, Michigan, Erie, Huron, and Ontario—as a principal
             source of their drinking water, recreation, and economic livelihood. Over
             time, industrial, agricultural, and residential development on lands
             adjacent to the lakes has seriously degraded the lakes’ water quality,
             posing threats to human health and the environment, and forcing
             restrictions on activities such as swimming and fish consumption.

             To protect the Great Lakes Basin and to address water quality problems,
             the governments of the United States and Canada entered into the bilateral
             Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972. In the agreement, the
             United States and Canada agreed to restore and maintain the chemical,
             physical, and biological integrity of the Great Lakes Basin. A new
             agreement with the same name was reached in 1978 and amended in 1983
             and 1987. The agreement prescribes prevention and cleanup measures to

             Page 3                                                            GAO-03-999T
                         improve environmental conditions in the Great Lakes. The agreement
                         obligates the International Joint Commission (IJC), an international body,
                         to assist in and report on the implementation of the agreement.

                         The Clean Water Act directs EPA to lead efforts to meet the goals of the
                         Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and establishes GLNPO within EPA,
                         charging it with, among other things, cooperating with federal, state, tribal,
                         and international agencies to develop action plans to carry out the
                         responsibilities of the U.S. under the agreement. GLNPO is further
                         responsible for coordinating the agency’s actions both in headquarters and
                         in the regions to improve Great Lakes’ water quality. In addition to
                         GLNPO, numerous federal, state, binational, and nonprofit organizations
                         conduct activities that focus on improving the overall Great Lakes Basin
                         environment or some specific environmental issue within the basin.

                         About 200 programs—148 federal and 51 state—fund restoration activities
Many Federal and         within the Great Lakes Basin. Most of these programs, however, involve
State Programs Fund      the localized application of national or state environmental initiatives and
                         do not specifically focus on basin concerns. Officials from 11 federal
Restoration Activities   agencies identified 115 of these broadly scoped federal programs, and
in the Great Lakes       officials from seven of the eight Great Lakes states identified 34 similar
                         state programs. EPA administers the majority of the federal programs that
Basin                    provide a broad range of environmental activities involving research,
                         cleanup, restoration, and pollution prevention. For example, EPA’s
                         nationwide Superfund program funds cleanup activities at contaminated
                         areas throughout the basin. While these broadly scoped federal and state
                         programs contribute to basin restoration, program officials do not track or
                         try to isolate the portion of funding directed toward specific areas, such as
                         the basin, which makes it difficult to determine their contributions to total
                         Great Lakes spending. However, basin-specific information was available
                         on some of these programs. Specifically, basin-related expenditures for 53
                         of the 115 broadly scoped federal programs totaled about $1.8 billion in
                         fiscal years 1992 through 2001. Expenditures for 14 broadly scoped state-
                         funded programs totaled $461.3 million during approximately the same
                         time period.

                         Several federal and state programs were specifically designed to focus on
                         environmental conditions across the Great Lakes Basin. Officials from
                         seven federal agencies identified 33 Great Lakes specific programs that
                         had expenditures of $387 million in fiscal years 1992 through 2001. Most of
                         these programs funded a variety of activities, such as research, cleanup, or
                         pollution prevention. An additional $358 million was expended for

                         Page 4                                                           GAO-03-999T
                        legislatively directed Corps of Engineers projects in the basin, such as a
                        $93.8 million project to restore Chicago’s shoreline. Officials from seven
                        states reported 17 Great Lakes specific programs that expended about
                        $956 million in 1992 through 2001, with Michigan’s programs accounting
                        for 96 percent of this amount. State programs focused on unique state
                        needs, such as Ohio’s program to control shoreline erosion along Lake
                        Erie and Michigan’s program to provide bond funding for environmental

                        Besides federal and state government agencies, other organizations, such
                        as foundations, fund a variety of restoration activities in the Great Lakes
                        Basin by approving grants to nonprofit and other organizations. Other
                        governmental and nongovernmental organizations fund restoration
                        activities. For example, individual municipalities, township governments,
                        counties, and conservation districts are involved in various restoration

                        Restoration of the Great Lakes Basin is a major endeavor involving many
The Lack of a           environmental programs and organizations. The magnitude of the area
Coordinated,            comprising the basin and the numerous environmental programs operating
                        within it require the development of one overarching strategy to address
Overarching Strategic   and manage the complexities of restoring the basin’s environmental
Plan Has Impeded        health. The Great Lakes region cannot hope to successfully receive
                        support as a national priority without a comprehensive plan for restoring
Restoration Efforts     the Great Lakes. In lieu of such a plan, organizations at the binational,
                        federal, and state levels have developed their own strategies for the Great
                        Lakes, which have inadvertently made the coordination of the various
                        programs operating in the basin more challenging.

                        The Great Lakes Basin needs a comprehensive strategy or plan similar to
                        the plans developed for other large ecosystem restoration efforts, such as
                        those for the South Florida ecosystem and the Chesapeake Bay. In South
                        Florida, federal, state, local and tribal organizations joined forces to
                        participate on a centralized task force formalized in the Water Resource
                        Development Act of 1996. The strategic plan developed for the South
                        Florida ecosystem by the task force made substantial progress in guiding
                        the restoration activities. The plan identifies the resources needed to
                        achieve restoration and assigns accountability for specific actions for the
                        extensive restoration effort, estimated to cost $14.8 billion. The
                        Chesapeake Bay watershed also has an overarching restoration strategy
                        stemming from a 1983 agreement signed by Maryland, Virginia, and
                        Pennsylvania; the District of Columbia; the Chesapeake Bay Commission;

                        Page 5                                                          GAO-03-999T
and EPA. The implementation of this strategy has resulted in
improvements in habitat restoration and aquatic life, such as increases in
bay grasses and in the shad population.

Several organizations have developed strategies for the basin at the
binational, federal, or state levels that address either the entire basin or
the specific problems in the Great Lakes. EPA’s Great Lakes Strategy 2002,
developed by a committee of federal and state officials, is the most recent
of these strategies. While this strategy identified restoration objectives and
planned actions by various federal and state agencies, it is largely a
description of existing program activity relating to basin restoration. State
officials told us that the states had already planned the actions described
in it, but that these actions were contingent on funding for specific
environmental programs. The strategy included a statement that it should
not be construed as a commitment for additional funding or resources,
and it did not provide a basis for prioritizing activities. In addition, we
identified other strategies that addressed particular contaminants, the
restoration of individual lakes, or the cleanup of contaminated areas. Ad
hoc coordination takes place among federal agencies, states, and other
environmental organizations in developing these strategies or when
programmatic activity calls for coordination.

Other Great Lakes strategies address unique environmental problems or
specific geographical areas. For example, a strategy for each lake
addresses the open lake waters through Lakewide Management Plans
(LaMP), which EPA is responsible for developing. Toward this end, EPA
formed working groups for each lake to identify and address restoration
activities. For example, the LaMP for Lake Michigan, issued in 2002,
includes a summary of the lake’s ecosystem status and addresses progress
in achieving the goals described in the previous plan, with examples of
significant activities completed and other relevant topics. However, EPA
has not used the LaMPs to assess the overall health of the ecosystem.

The Binational Executive Committee for the United States and Canada
issued its Great Lakes Binational Toxics Strategy in 1997 that established a
collaborative process by which EPA and Environment Canada, in
consultation with other federal departments and agencies, states, tribes
and the province of Ontario work toward the virtual elimination of
persistent toxic substances in the Great Lakes. The strategy was designed
to address particular substances that bioaccumulate in fish or animals and
pose a human health risk.

Page 6                                                           GAO-03-999T
Michigan developed a strategy for environmental cleanup called the Clean
Michigan Initiative. This initiative provides funding for a variety of
environmental, parks, and redevelopment programs. It includes nine
components, including Brownfields redevelopment and environmental
cleanups, nonpoint source pollution control, clean water, cleanup of
contaminated sediments, and pollution prevention. The initiative is funded
by a $675 million general obligation bond and, as of early 2003, most of the
funds had not been distributed.

Although there are many strategies and coordination efforts ongoing, no
one organization coordinates restoration efforts. We found that extensive
strategizing, planning, and coordinating have not resulted in significant
restoration. Thus, the ecosystem remains compromised and contaminated
sediments in the lakes produce health problems, as reported by the IJC.2

In addition to the absence of a coordinating agency, federal and state
officials cited a lack of funding commitments as a principal barrier that
impedes restoration progress. Inadequate funding has also contributed to
the failure to restore and protect the Great Lakes, according to the IJC
biennial report on Great Lakes water quality issued in July 2000.3 The IJC
restated this position in a 2002 report, concluding that any progress to
restore the Great Lakes would continue at a slow incremental pace
without increased funding.4 In its 1993 biennial report, the IJC concluded
that remediation of contaminated areas could not be accomplished unless
government officials came to grips with the magnitude of cleanup costs
and started the process of securing the necessary resources.5 Despite this
warning, however, as we reported in 2002, EPA reduced the funding
available for ensuring the cleanup of contaminated areas under the
assumption that the states would fill the funding void. States, however, did
not increase their funding, and restoration progress slowed or stopped
altogether.6 Officials for 24 of 33 federal programs and for 3 of 17 state
programs reported insufficient funding for federal and state Great Lakes
specific programs.

See IJC, Tenth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality (June 29, 2000).
See IJC Tenth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality (June 29, 2000).
See IJC, Eleventh Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality (Sept. 12, 2002).
See IJC, Seventh Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality (Dec. 15, 1993).
See GAO-02-563.

Page 7                                                                    GAO-03-999T
The ultimate responsibility for coordinating Great Lakes restoration
programs rests with GLNPO; however, GLNPO has not fully exercised this
authority. Other organizations or committees have been formed to assume
coordination and strategy development roles. The Clean Water Act
provides GLNPO with the authority to fulfill the responsibilities of the U.S.
under the GLWQA. Specifically, the act directs EPA to coordinate the
actions of EPA’s headquarters and regional offices aimed at improving
Great Lakes water quality. It also provides GLNPO authority to coordinate
EPA’s actions with the actions of other federal agencies and state and
local authorities for obtaining input in developing water quality strategies
and obtaining support in achieving the objectives of the GLWQA. The act
also provides that the EPA Administrator shall ensure that GLNPO enters
into agreements with the various organizational elements of the agency
engaged in Great Lakes activities and with appropriate state agencies. The
agreements should specifically delineate the duties and responsibilities,
time periods for carrying out duties, and resources committed to these
duties. GLNPO officials stated that they do not enter into formal
agreements with other EPA offices but rather fulfill their responsibilities
under the act by having federal agencies and state officials agree to the
restoration activities contained in the Great Lakes Strategy 2002. However,
the strategy does not represent formal agreements to conduct specific
duties and responsibilities with committed resources. EPA’s Office of
Inspector General reported the absence of these agreements in September
1999.7 The report stated that GLNPO did not have agreements as required
by the act and recommended that such agreements be made to improve
working relationships and coordination.

To improve coordination of Great Lakes activities and ensure that federal
dollars are effectively spent, we recommended that the Administrator,
EPA, ensure that GLNPO fulfills its responsibility for coordinating
programs within the Great Lakes Basin; 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; and submit a time-phased funding requirement
proposal to the Congress necessary to implement the strategy.

 See U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA’s Great Lakes Program, EPA/OIG Rept.
99P00212 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 1, 1999).

Page 8                                                                 GAO-03-999T
                       The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, as amended in 1987, calls for
The Lack of an         establishing a monitoring system to measure restoration progress and
Effective Monitoring   assess the degree to which the United States and Canada are complying
                       with the goals and objectives of the agreement. However, implementation
System Makes it        of this provision has not progressed to the point that overall restoration
Impossible to Assess   progress can be measured or determined based on quantitative
                       information. Recent assessments of overall progress, which rely on a mix
Overall Restoration    of quantitative data and subjective judgments, do not provide an adequate
Progress               basis for making an overall assessment. The current assessment process
                       has emerged from a series of biennial State of the Lakes Ecosystem
                       Conferences (SOLEC)8 initiated in 1994 for developing indicators agreed
                       upon by conference participants.

                       Prior to the 1987 amendments to the GLWQA, the 1978 agreement between
                       the two countries also contained a requirement for surveillance and
                       monitoring and for the development of a Great Lakes International
                       Surveillance Plan. The IJC Water Quality Board was involved in managing
                       and developing the program until the 1987 amendments gave this
                       responsibility to the United States and Canada. This change resulted in a
                       significant reduction in the two countries’ support for surveillance and
                       monitoring. In fact, the organizational structure to implement the
                       surveillance plan was abandoned in 1990, leaving only one initiative in
                       place—the International Atmospheric Deposition Network (IADN), which
                       involved a network of 15 air-monitoring stations located throughout the

                       With the surveillance and monitoring efforts languishing, IJC established
                       the Indicators for Evaluation Task Force in 1993 to identify the
                       appropriate framework to evaluate progress in the Great Lakes. In 1996,
                       the task force proposed that nine desired measurements and outcomes be
                       used to develop indicators for measuring progress in the Great Lakes.

                       Shortly before the task force began its work, the United States and Canada
                       had agreed to hold conferences every 2 years to assess the environmental
                       conditions in the Great Lakes in order to develop binational reports on
                       environmental conditions to measure progress under the agreement.
                       Besides assessing environmental conditions, the conferences were
                       focused on achieving three other objectives, including providing a forum
                       for communication and networking among stakeholders. Conference

                       SOLEC is co-chaired by representatives from the U.S. EPA and Environment Canada.

                       Page 9                                                                  GAO-03-999T
participants included U.S. and Canadian representatives from federal,
state, provincial, and tribal agencies, as well as from other organizations
with environmental restoration or pollution prevention interests in the
Great Lakes Basin. The 1994 SOLEC conference culminated in a “State of
the Great Lakes 1995” report, which provided an overview of the Great
Lakes ecosystem at the end of 1994 and concluded that overall the aquatic
community health was mixed or improving. This same assessment was
echoed in the 1997 state of the lakes report. Meanwhile the IJC agreed that
the nine desired outcome areas recommended by the task force would
help assess overall progress. It recommended that SOLEC, during the
conference in 2000, establish environmental indicators that would allow
the IJC to evaluate what had been accomplished and what needed to be
done for three of the nine indicators—the public’s ability to eat the fish,
drink the water, and swim in the water without any restrictions.

However, the indicators developed through the SOLEC process and the
accomplishments reported by federal and state program managers do not
provide an adequate basis for making an overall assessment for Great
Lakes restoration progress. The SOLEC process is ongoing, and the
indicators that are still being developed are not generally supported by
sufficient underlying data for making progress assessments. The number
of indicators considered during the SOLEC conferences has been pared
down from more than 850 indicators in 1998 to 80 indicators in 2000,
although data was available for only 33 of them.

After the SOLEC 2000 conference, IJC staff assessed the indicators
supported by data that measured the desired outcomes of swimmability,
drinkability, and the edibility of fish in the Great Lakes.9 Overall, the IJC
commended SOLEC’s quick response that brought together information
regarding the outcomes and SOLEC’s ongoing efforts. The IJC, however,
recognized that sufficient data were not being collected throughout the
Great Lakes Basin and that the methods of collection, the data collection
time frames, the lack of uniform protocols, and the incompatible nature of
some data jeopardized their use as indicators. Specifically, for the desired
outcome of swimmability, the IJC concurred that it was not always safe to
swim at certain beaches but noted that progress for this desired outcome
was limited because beaches were sampled by local jurisdictions without
uniform sampling or reporting methods. At the 2002 SOLEC conference,
the number of indicators assessed by conference participants increased

See IJC, Eleventh Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality (Sept. 12, 2002).

Page 10                                                                   GAO-03-999T
from 33 to 45. The IJC expressed concern that there are too many
indicators, insufficient supporting backup data, and a lack of commitment
and funding from EPA to implement and make operational the agreed
upon SOLEC baseline data collection and monitoring techniques. The IJC
recommended in its last biennial report that any new indicators should be
developed only where resources are sufficient to access scientifically valid
and reliable information.

The ultimate successful development and assessment of indicators for the
Great Lakes through the SOLEC process are uncertain because insufficient
resources have been committed to the process, no plan provides
completion dates for indicator development and implementation, and no
entity is coordinating the data collection. Even though the SOLEC process
has successfully engaged a wide range of binational parties in developing
indicators, the resources devoted to this process are largely provided on a
voluntary basis without firm commitments to continue in the future.
GLNPO officials described the SOLEC process as a professional,
collaborative process dependent on the voluntary participation of officials
from federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and other
organizations attending SOLEC and developing information on specific
indicators. Because SOLEC is a voluntary process, the indicator data
resides in a diverse number of sources with limited control by SOLEC
organizers. GLNPO officials stated that EPA has neither the authority nor
the responsibility to direct the data collection activities of federal, state,
and local agencies as they relate to the surveillance and monitoring of
technical data elements that are needed to develop, implement, and assess
Great Lakes environmental indicators. Efforts are underway for the
various federal and state agencies to take ownership for collecting and
reporting data outputs from their respective areas of responsibility and for
SOLEC to be sustained and implemented; each indicator must have a
sponsor. However, any breakdown in submitting this information would
leave a gap in the SOLEC indicator process.

EPA supports the development of environmental indicators as evidenced
by the fact that, since 1994, GLNPO has provided about $100,000 annually
to sponsor the SOLEC conferences. Additionally, GLNPO spends over $4
million per year to collect surveillance data for its open-lake water quality
monitoring program, which also provides supporting data for some of the
indicators addressed by SOLEC. A significant portion of these funds,
however, supports the operation of GLNPO’s research vessel, the Lake
Guardian, an offshore supply vessel converted for use as a research vessel.
GLNPO also supports activities that are linked or otherwise feed
information into the SOLEC process, including the following:

Page 11                                                          GAO-03-999T
•   collecting information on plankton and benthic communities in the Great
    Lakes for open water indicator development;

•   sampling various chemicals in the open-lake waters, such as phosphorus
    for the total phosphorus indicator;

•   monitoring fish contaminants in the open waters, directly supporting the
    indicator for contaminants in whole fish and a separate monitoring effort
    for contaminants in popular sport fish species that supports the indicator
    for chemical contaminants in edible fish tissue; and

•   operating 15 air-monitoring stations with Environment Canada comprising
    the IADN that provides information for establishing trends in
    concentrations of certain chemicals and loadings of chemicals into the
    lakes. EPA uses information from the network to take actions to control
    the chemicals and track progress toward environmental goals.

    In November 2001, EPA committed to an agencywide initiative to develop
    environmental indicators for addressing the agency’s nationwide
    environmental conditions, stating that “indicators help measure the state
    of our air, water and land resources and the pressures placed on them, and
    the resulting effects on ecological and human health.” However, this
    initiative does not specifically relate to the Great Lakes. The short-term
    goal for this initiative is to develop information that will indicate current
    nationwide environmental conditions and to help EPA make sound
    decisions on what needs to be done. The long-term goal is to bring
    together national, regional, state, and tribal indicator efforts to describe
    the condition of critical environmental areas and human health concerns.

    Program officials frequently cite output data as measures of success rather
    than actual program accomplishments in improving environmental
    conditions in the basin. As a rule, program output data describe activities,
    such as projects funded, and are of limited value in determining
    environmental progress. For example, in reporting the accomplishments
    for Michigan’s Great Lakes Protection Fund, officials noted that the
    program had funded 125 research projects over an 11-year period and
    publicized its project results at an annual forum and on a Web site.
    Similarly, the Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon Reintroduction Program
    administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife
    Service listed under its accomplishments the completion of a pilot study
    and technical assistance provided to a Native American tribe.

    Page 12                                                          GAO-03-999T
Of the 50 federal and state programs created specifically to address
conditions in the basin, 27 reported accomplishments in terms of outputs,
such as reports or studies prepared or presentations made to groups.
Because research and capacity building programs largely support other
activities, it is particularly difficult to relate reported program
accomplishments to outcomes. The federal and state environmental
program officials who responded to our evaluation generally provided
output data or, as reported for 15 programs, reported that the
accomplishments had not been measured for the programs.

Only eight of the federal or state Great Lakes specific programs reported
outcome information, much of which generally described how effective
the programs’ activities or actions had been in improving environmental
conditions. For example, EPA’s Region II program for reducing toxic
chemical inputs into the Niagara River, which connects Lake Erie to Lake
Ontario, reported reductions in priority toxics from 1986 through 2002
from ambient water quality monitoring. Other significant outcomes
reported as accomplishments for the Great Lakes included (1) reducing
phosphorus loadings by waste treatment plants and limiting phosphorus
use in household detergents; (2) prohibiting the release of some toxicants
into the Great Lakes, and reducing to an acceptable level the amount of
some other toxicants that could be input; (3) effectively reducing the sea
lamprey population in several invasive species-infested watersheds; and
(4) restocking the fish-depleted populations in some watersheds.

To fulfill the need for a monitoring system called for in the GLWQA and to
ensure that the limited funds available are optimally spent, we
recommended that the Administrator, EPA, in coordination with Canadian
officials and as part of an overarching Great Lakes strategy, (1) develop
environmental indicators and a monitoring system for the Great Lakes
Basin that can be used to measure overall restoration progress and (2)
require that these indicators be used to evaluate, prioritize, and make
funding decisions on the merits of alternative restoration projects.

Mr. Chairman, this completes my prepared statement. I would be happy to
answer any questions that you or other members of the Subcommittee
may have at this time.

Page 13                                                        GAO-03-999T
           For further information, please contact John B. Stephenson at
           (202) 512-3841. Individuals making key contributions to this testimony
           were Willie Bailey, Karen Keegan, Rosemary Torres-Lerma, Jonathan
           McMurray, Margaret Reese, and John Wanska.

           Page 14                                                        GAO-03-999T
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