Thought Leadership

Will Politics Stand in the Way of Continued Project Funding for Great Lakes Restoration?

September 11, 2023

Sunrise Over A Great Lake

Byline: By Cam Davis – Vice President, GEI

This is part 4 in a five-part series.


Last time, we explained why the timing is ideal right now for Great Lakes restoration work. We also reviewed the steps involved with applying for Great Lakes restoration funding. This time, we turn our attention to what could be in store for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Specifically, will politics make it harder for you to access project funds?

It’s a great question and I’m glad you asked it.

In Part 1, we looked at how bipartisan pledges in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement created demand for Great Lakes and St. Lawrence protection projects. In Part 2, you learned how the U.S. has tried to fulfill that demand with the establishment of the GLRI and in Part 3, we provided a pragmatic outline of funding opportunities for you to do restoration work. In this part, with Congress increasingly at odds, will the GLRI be caught in the crossfire as the agencies finalize a new Action Plan by September 30, 2024? Let’s first take a look at some of the headwinds the GLRI faces on Capitol Hill then at how the GLRI Action Plan is likely to change the federal government’s investment priorities starting next year.

The Great Lakes, have a long history of being off limits to partisan squawking. Because people, regardless of political orientation, need clean water for drinking and clean beaches to take their families, political squabbling has been—thankfully—limited.

The GLRI is no exception. “Great Lakes program inspires rare bipartisanship,” declared one AP article from 2013 that made national news for its seemingly surreal yet-still-more-than-welcome observation.

The same is true today. Congress has blessed the program with ever-increasing levels of funding because both sides win by being a friend of the Great Lakes. That’s likely to continue; however, some warning signs are appearing on the horizon like a big wave headed toward the shore.

For example, this summer, U.S. House Republicans identified their spending cuts as part of the “302(b)” spending allocation process. The spending bill, passed 33 to 27 mostly along party lines, would cut the U.S. EPA’s budget by 39% from last year’s levels. While it’s too early to say what that cut would mean to geographic programs like the GLRI, because the GLRI is housed within U.S. EPA’s budget, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the GLRI could dodge a decrease. That said, the measure still would need approval by the full U.S. House. And even if the full House backs drastic cuts, the U.S. Senate is not likely to agree to the degree of cuts, if any, once it takes up its spending bills. After all, next year is a significant election year, and neither side wants to lose Great Lakes swing states. Then, there’s always the prospect of a presidential veto if cuts are too drastic. The bottom line: GLRI funds will continue to be available for good work, even if funding shrinks a little. And that’s a big “if.”

What will “good work” look like in 2024 and beyond? Under law, the federal agencies must update their GLRI Action Plan every five years, with the next one due to cover federal fiscal years 2025 to 2030 (the federal fiscal year starts October 1 every year).

Though the five focus areas (see Part 2 for a short overview) aren’t likely to change in upcoming Action Plan IV, we’ll see some adjustments, some of them overdue. For example, we’re likely to see a greater emphasis on environmental justice and Great Lakes contributions to combatting climate change. We’re also likely to see an emphasis on coastal resilience given the monthly record-high lake levels and battering that Great Lakes coasts took in 2020 (some waves reached as high as 23 feet, wiping out beaches that will not be replaced).

Even with all the potential funding cuts and adjustments to focus areas, the nucleus of the GLRI will remain available for funding important projects. But the prospects of project funding depends on individual projects. Interested in knowing more or navigating what this means for you? I’d like to hear from you.

And, even if GLRI funding levels decreased in the coming months, hope is on the rise in Canada for Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River project funding. That topic is up next.

Revisit my previous blog posts in this series on