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1st Friday Focus on the Environment: The challenges of improving the health of the Great Lakes

Healing Our Waters - Great Lakes Coalition executive director Laura Rubin
Great Lakes Protection Fund
Healing Our Waters - Great Lakes Coalition executive director Laura Rubin


Laura Rubin has spent more than 30 years working on environmental protection, policy, and conservation issues. She is currently the Director of the Healing Our Waters—Great Lakes Coalition, which harnesses the collective power of more than 160 groups representing millions of people, whose common goal is to restore and protect the Great Lakes. Before that Ms. Rubin worked as executive director of the Michigan-based Huron River Watershed Council since 1998.

Ms. Rubin has served as a board member or advisor to local, state, and national organizations. For her national leadership in river protection, she received the River Network’s 2013 River Hero Award. She earned Master’s degrees in Business Administration and Natural Resource Policy at the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute, and a Bachelor of Arts in business economics from Colorado College.

Ms. Rubin was appointed to the board of the Great Lakes Protection Fund in October of 2020.


Lisa Wozniak
Michigan League of Conservation Voters
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor's degree and two ensuing master's degrees in social work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'


Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Healing Our Water-Great Lakes Coalition

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI)

Laura Rubin


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And I'd like to welcome you to the October edition of First Friday Focus on the Environment. I'm David Fair. And on the first Friday of each month, we take a good look at a topic of environmental importance In Michigan. One of our most abundant and important natural resources is, of course, water. The world's largest freshwater supply is the Great Lakes, and all of the Great Lakes states face challenges, including ours. My partner and co-host on First Fridays is the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And welcome back, Lisa Wozniak.

Lisa Wozniak: Thank you, Dave. And you're right. Ensuring the health of the Great Lakes is vitally important, and that's exactly the mission of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. Our guest today is executive director of the Coalition. Laura Rubin was the long-standing executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council. Welcome back to WEMU, Laura.

Laura Rubin: Thank you, Lisa and David. It's great to be back.

Lisa Wozniak: It's hard to believe that the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is a teenager. I remember when it was put in place. The federally funded program was launched in 2010, so it was 13 years ago. How important is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative--the federal funding--to the advocacy and the on-the-ground work, specifically the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

Laura Rubin: The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or GLRI, as we affectionately call it, was really the launching point for a lot of the Great Lakes work by the NGOs in the region. We now have 180 NGOs that are part of the coalition, and the coalition is really the collective voice for all of the advocates throughout the Great Lakes on federal policy and funding. We didn't have that before, and we had a united voice that spoke for the Great Lakes. I think, before that, there really wasn't any united voice, and there weren't clear priorities. And out of that effort came the GLRI program. You know, we were lucky to get a president also from a Great Lakes state, President Obama from Illinois, who was able to champion the Great Lakes. And then, luckily, we have been able to sustain that bipartisan support for this key program. And the program has provided over $300 million every year to the Great Lakes.

David Fair: But it seems as though in every budget cycle, Laura, there is the ongoing threat that funding for this program is going to be eliminated. So, is Congress really putting its money where its mouth is in terms of supporting the cleanup and protection of the Great Lakes as needed?

Laura Rubin: Yes and no, David. They continue to support the GLRI program pretty steadily. And even with the Trump administration, when it was zeroed out by the presidential administration, Congress put it back in--both in the House and the Senate. And there has been bipartisan support. What we're starting to see more and more of in in this budget--it's a clear example--is there's support for restoration, but there isn't the support for protection at the same time. There's a gutting of the federal agencies that protect our Great Lakes. And we can't just restore our Great Lakes while we continue to see them degraded.

Lisa Wozniak: So, I'm sure that this is hard to pinpoint, but how much more money is needed on an annual basis to just address the current issue, setting aside some of the future problems that we see headed our way?

Laura Rubin: The current issues, the big ones, are what we call areas of concern. These are the most heavily polluted, mainly toxic areas throughout the Great Lakes. These are our main harbors in our big cities: Detroit. Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo. And to clean those up, we need about an extra billion dollars. And that's what we were able to get in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. We think, with the current projections, that we can clean up all but three of them by 2030 with that extra billion dollars and the annual appropriations. But if we continue to have a lot of polluters dumping things, if we continue to have PFAS pollution, we're only adding more of those sites. And we can't do one without the other. And so, that's why, really, we're very concerned about what's happening at the federal budget level where they're cutting the EPA's budget, USGS, NOAA, fisheries, etc. by 33%, 40%. You know, we're very happy to see the GLRI at constant levels, and it shows a commitment to the program. But we also recognize you can't have one without the other.

David Fair: WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment conversation with Laura Rubin continues. Laura is the executive director of the advocacy organization Healing Our Waters - Great Lakes Coalition. And a lot of success stories have already taken place with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. What are some examples in Southeast Michigan of how this money is making a difference in our environmental health?

Laura Rubin: Yeah. In southeast Michigan, we really look to the Rouge and the Clinton, where they have had a lot of GLRI money go into those areas. If you look at, you know, the Detroit River, where, two years ago, we pulled out that six-foot sturgeon. You know, I mean, we're starting to see fisheries and habitat restored. And that is mainly because we've invested so much money in cleaning up the Detroit River, the Rouge River, the Clinton River. When you go down to the Detroit River now, on both sides, you know, you're starting to see that restoration in not only the clean-up, but the softening of that shoreline. You're getting more wetlands and floodplains and native plants, and there all things that store water and clean it. And then, throughout southeast Michigan, sort of in Washtenaw County, too, you see a lot of land protection, you see a lot of river restoration, removal of invasive species, habitat restoration, those kinds of projects.

Lisa Wozniak: Those are definitely great stories. When it comes to drinking water....

Laura Rubin: Yes.

Lisa Wozniak: The Great Lakes has experienced some really tragic and dire situations. What needs to be done differently, so that we can all have access to clean, affordable drinking water free from toxic contamination?

Laura Rubin: So, that gets us a little bit away from the GLRI program and then to water infrastructure. And this has been a priority of the coalition. We have had an underinvestment in water infrastructure. I think it's a water infrastructure crisis, as many others do. When we look back at the seventies, the federal government invested almost 100% in building and maintaining some of our drinking water systems. That dropped to about 14% in the 2000s. And our communities were not investing in their assets and in building up, you know, their rate structures, so that they were able to pay for maintenance. And we really have a crisis of, you know, a lack of infrastructure here, a lack of taking care in maintaining these systems. The bipartisan infrastructure law is a huge shot in the arm, in terms of maintaining and fixing these systems. One of the big issues for the coalition and our partners is making sure that the water infrastructure funds are going to those communities that most need it. And, unfortunately, that's not some of our more well-resourced water utilities, like Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. It's our infrastructure. It's our utilities like Detroit and Flint and Benton Harbor and those utilities that represent some of our underserved communities. And they need those resources. And also, they need technical assistance. They need the engineers to come in and help them understand how to access those federal funds, how to build affordability programs, which has been lacking throughout the state and the country. And so, you know, yes. This is a huge issue for us.

David Fair: Once again, this is WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment, and our guest is Healing our Waters executive director Laura Rubin. And the other voice you hear is my co-host, Lisa Wozniak, from the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

Lisa Wozniak: As noted, we're seeing adverse impacts from climate change as well. And what has been the effect on the Great Lakes so far? And what is the forecast for the future?

Laura Rubin: I think everybody sees the impacts of climate change on the Great Lakes. This past summer, we see an increase in the severity of storms and therefore flooding, especially in urban areas. But also, we don't get as much press attention but in our rural areas. Heat extremes and cold extremes, when we get the polar vortex or when we get hot and the droughts and then now we're seeing more of the forest fires--those are the main impacts that we're seeing in the Great Lakes. Luckily, we have an abundance of fresh water, and there's a lot of talk about what that will mean in the future for our country, whether more people will actually move to the Great Lakes or whether there will be more demand. But to me, sort of that flooding, drought and the fires tend to be the main impacts, you know, that we're seeing in the Great Lakes.

David Fair: So, I think we are dramatically under-invested in climate adaptation. How focal of a point is that going to become in the work you do with the coalition?

Laura Rubin: A huge focal point. We were big advocates of the Inflation Reduction Act, but a lot of those funds will go to climate adaptation, and a lot of that gets back to some of the GLRI programs where we're talking about not only protecting wetlands and floodplains and natural areas, but putting them back into the system, rebuilding those again, protecting them, making them more resilient, because those, you know, those on the landscape is what is going to allow us to adapt more to these extreme climate variations.

Lisa Wozniak: So, as we consider the ramifications of under-investment, you've also noted attempts to slash funding.

Laura Rubin: Yes.

Lisa Wozniak: And we see a potential for a federal government shutdown. What would that mean for the health of the Great Lakes?

Laura Rubin: Unfortunately, it's not good news. Some of the programs will keep running along. You know, many of the GLRI grants that are out there will continue to progress. But GLRI also funds a lot of our agencies, and our agency budgets will also stop. There's a discussion about what's essential and what's not. But not all of our regulators are considered essential. Some of the research, especially, shuts down. Also, a lot of these programs, the implementation of the cleanup, are very dependent on the seasons, dependent on when fish spawn. You can't do work. You can't plant at certain times of the year. So, even by missing something by a few months, you might delay these projects, the cleanup or the implementation by a full year. So, you know, it's very sad to see that we've gotten to this point in our government. We'd like to see them sort of fund Great Lakes programs, let the agencies do their work and continue on.

David Fair: Laura Rubin, it's always good to talk with you. Thank you for coming by today.

Laura Rubin: Oh, thank you. It's such a pleasure to see both of you and talk about Great Lakes issues.

David Fair: That is Laura Rubin. She is the executive director of Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition and the former executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council right here in Washtenaw County. For more information on Healing our Waters and the work it's doing, visit our web site at WEMU dot org. And, Lisa, thank you for your partnership and the time today. I look forward to visiting with you in November.

Lisa Wozniak: Thank you, Dave. Thank you, Laura. I look forward to our next show.

David Fair: That is Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and my co-host for First Friday Focus on the Environment. I'm David Fair, and this is your community. NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Lisa Wozniak is Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
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