Analysis

Will Wild Rice Really Save The Great Lakes?

Without prioritization, it’s hard to know if Great Lakes Restoration money is well-spent

A federal grant program called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been portrayed by politicians and the media as vital for improving the quality of the Great Lakes.

The program has spent more than $762 million, giving grants for 880 projects across Michigan since 2010. In total, it has spent $2.4 billion on grants for 4,700 projects in seven states in the Great Lakes region.

When President Donald Trump recommended greatly reducing the program to just 10 percent of the $300 million authorized in recent annual federal budgets, media reports talked about its various benefits.

For example, The Detroit News stated, “The cleanup program’s funding is used to toward fighting invasive species, cleaning up pollution and toxic substances, and restoring habitats and species in the lakes.”

While all that is true, it is difficult to conclude that any particular expenditure is more vital than another in improving the Great Lakes. As a result, many more worthwhile projects may not get funded at all.

Nevertheless, politicians, including Michigan lawmakers, continue to praise GLRI spending and call for extending and expanding the program.

For example, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Republican from Zeeland, is a co-chair of the House Great Lakes Task Force. He said the program has addressed the “cleanup of legacy pollution, taking greater action against invasive species, and increasing habitat restoration.”

Without a process for determining the relative value of each project, however, many of the activities funded by the GLRI may benefit favored interests but do little to improve the environment.

One potential example is the millions of dollars spent on wild rice in Michigan and surrounding states. GLRI funds have supported work to expand wild rice cultivation, and some advocates of that spending have stressed the cultural connection between wild rice and Native American tribes.

In 2016, Sandra Lewis of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians spoke at a subcommittee hearing.

“This food is critical to our people; it is known as wild rice,” Lewis told the committee. Then she requested that an earmark under the GLRI for restoring wild rice in the region be increased from $3 million to $10 million.

The website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration echoed this argument. In supporting a $400,000 federal grant to wild rice seeding efforts, it said, “Coastal wetlands are the ecological engines of the Great Lakes, but few natural resources have a stronger cultural connection than wild rice (manoomin).”

That may be true, but a prioritization process might show that other expenditures of $400,000 could do even more to improve wetlands.

The federal program also gave $666,332 to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee from 2013 through 2017, as part of its wild rice program. A report from the tribe gave three reasons why wild rice is important: It provides a habitat for a variety of organisms; it supports other native plant species; and it has high nutrient uptake. Still, it is not possible to judge the value of this grant without considering other, potentially more effective uses for those dollars.

The same can be said about an argument posted by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community on its website. Speaking of wild rice, the posting said, “It can also help to maintain water quality by securing loose soil, tying up nutrients, and slowing winds across shallow wetlands.”

But Jason Hayes, director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said that whenever someone questions the value of a particular project, the immediate response of GLRI defenders is that the money must be spent, or the Great Lakes will be irrevocably damaged.

“The challenge we face when deciding how to focus Great Lakes Restoration Initiative spending isn’t this effort to restore wild rice stands on the banks of the Great Lakes,” Hayes said in an email. “Those projects may be very effective at meeting their objective. The problem we face is the lack of transparent oversight and the general refusal to prioritize the most important and effective projects.”

The EPA said it would comment on this story. Despite repeated follow-ups, however, it did not. John Rodwan, director of the environmental department of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.