Top 5 Great Lakes Federal Policy Priorities for 2023

January 24, 2023

2023 federal policy priorities.

Significant progress has been made in protecting and restoring the Great Lakes. But much more needs to be done. Too many Great Lakers experience polluted water, whether it is lead-tainted water coming from taps in homes or algal blooms fouling beaches. Invasive species threaten the lakes, and plastic pollutes our beaches and drinking water.  

In our 2023 federal policy priorities, we’ve identified the top five opportunities for Congress and federal agencies to address these challenges. Many of these priorities are familiar. Congress and the administration must keep up the momentum generated over the past few years to fix our water infrastructure, stop invasive species, and support on-the-ground restoration projects.  

Equity and justice are embedded throughout these policy priorities. Equity and justice must be considered at every step of the federal decision-making process to ensure that all Great Lakers have access to safe, clean, affordable water. Federal water programs must prioritize low-income communities and communities of color, where the burden of pollution often hits hardest. Repairing the long-term harm from environmental injustices isn’t a one-off action. Instead, Congress and the administration must ensure that community voices are at the table, and listened to, from the beginning of all decision-making.  

This year, we have two new priority areas focused on opportunities we’ve identified for the federal government to push forward new approaches to long-standing problems. First is the Farm Bill, which only happens every five years and sets national agriculture and food policy. We see an opportunity to improve federal agriculture subsidy programs to make sure farmers produce clean water, not pollution, along with their crops. Second, concern about plastic pollution continues to grow, and Congress can act to limit plastic pollution by reducing it at the source and not once it is a problem on our beaches and in our communities.  

Read on for full details of our 2023 Great Lakes federal policy priorities, or download the fact sheet to learn more.

Water infrastructure.

Increase water infrastructure funding, prioritize funding for communities most in need 

The infrastructure bill passed by Congress late in 2021 was an important down payment to fix the nation’s failing and outdated water infrastructure. The funding will jump-start efforts to replace dangerous lead pipes, fix leaky pipes, and stop sewage overflows.  

However, the funding is only a start. It’s estimated that the Great Lakes region will need at least $188 billion over the next twenty years to fix our water infrastructure problems. Currently, the infrastructure bill will provide Great Lakes states with an additional $1.8 billion per year for the next five years. It is clearly not enough. We need to keep the pressure on Congress to provide additional funds for water infrastructure programs. Additionally, funding programs must be structured to ensure that money reaches communities with the highest need, such as those with many lead pipes. 

In 2023, we urge Congress to: 

  • Increase annual funding to at least $8 billion for the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds  
  • Increase by $1 billion annual funding levels for lead service line replacement and emerging contaminants  
  • Pass a federal ban on water shutoffs 
  • Establish a federal program to provide financial assistance for water and sewer bills 

In 2023 we urge the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to: 

  • Work with states to ensure equitable distribution of infrastructure funding and provide technical assistance to disadvantaged and underserved communities  
  • Complete the Drinking Water Needs Assessment in early 2023 to increase the amount of lead service line funding to Great Lakes states which have the highest number of lead pipes in the country

Download the water infrastructure fact sheet.


Pass a Farm Bill that prioritizes clean water 

Agriculture is the largest unaddressed source of nonpoint pollution in the Great Lakes region. Runoff from agricultural lands puts the Great Lakes at risk. It pollutes drinking water, threatens wildlife, harms the regional economy, and prevents people from enjoying recreation on the Great Lakes. 

Every five years, Congress develops a “farm bill,” a major package of legislation that sets the agenda and funding for national farm and food policy. In 2023, Congress can pass a Farm Bill that ensures farms produce clean water, not pollution, along with their crops.  

In 2023, we urge Congress to pass a Farm Bill that: 

  • Increases funding for US Department of Agriculture conservation programs  
  • Includes provisions to ensure accountability for farm conservation programs aimed at stopping runoff pollution from agricultural lands
  • Reduces funding for concentrated animal feeding operations 
Plastic pollution.

Pass legislation to stop plastic pollution  

Researchers estimate that 22 million pounds of plastic pollution enter the Great Lakes each year. Plastic pollution isn’t just an unsightly problem in our waterways. It’s estimated that humans ingest a credit card-sized amount of plastic each week, with unknown long-term consequences for our health. 

For many years, efforts to stop plastic pollution put the responsibility on the end-user, such as recycling. But only a fraction of plastic produced each year is recycled, leaving the remainder to end up in landfills or as litter that lands in our waterways. The alternative is to require plastic producers to be responsible for their products through their lifecycle, which is called extended producer responsibility. Congress has an opportunity to be a leader on this issue.  

In 2023, we urge Congress to pass legislation that: 

  • Makes plastic waste producers responsible for its reduction 
  • Reduces the federal government’s use of single-use plastics 
  • Funds additional research on the public health impact of plastics

Download the plastic pollution fact sheet.

Invasive species.

Protect the Great Lakes from aquatic invasive species  

Invasive species have caused irreparable harm to the Great Lakes ecosystem and cost the region billions of dollars since the late 1980s. Preventing them from ever entering is the best way to protect the Great Lakes. The battle against invasive species is focused on two fronts – stopping invasive carp from entering the Great Lakes and cleaning up ship ballast tanks.  

Established populations of invasive carp are only 50 miles from Chicago and Lake Michigan. But it’s not too late to prevent them from reaching the lakes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed constructing additional carp prevention measures at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, Illinois. The facility is a critical choke point in the waterways leading to Lake Michigan. Congress and federal agencies must continue to support this project.  

The St. Lawrence Seaway opened the Great Lakes to direct ocean-going shipping. Unfortunately, ships brought invasive species along for the ride in their ballast tanks. Although regulations to clean up ship ballast tanks have reduced introductions, loopholes remain for “lakers,” ships operating solely in the Great Lakes. The US EPA can close that loophole. 

In 2023, we urge Congress to: 

  • Fund the next phases of construction of the Brandon Road project to stop invasive carp 

In 2023, we urge federal agencies to take the following actions: 

  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should continue implementing the Brandon Road project with public participation and work with the state of Illinois to finalize the project partnership agreement. 
  • The U.S. EPA should issue rules requiring all vessels operating on the Great Lakes, including lakers, to clean up their ballast tanks.

Download the invasive species fact sheet.

Great Lakes restoration.

Update and fund Great Lakes restoration programs 

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) is one of the most important tools in the region’s toolbox to protect and restore the lakes. The program provides funding for on-the-ground restoration projects, from wetland restoration to cleaning up toxic hotspots. In addition to environmental benefits, GLRI funding garners an additional 3-to-1 return in economic benefits.  

While we need continued investment in Great Lakes restoration, the strategy guiding the GLRI was developed almost 20 years ago and needs an update. Federal agencies should revise the Great Lakes restoration strategy to address the next generation of threats to the lakes, including climate change and long-standing environmental injustices.  

In 2023, we urge Congress to: 

  • Fund the GLRI with at least $425 million in FY24 

In 2023, we urge federal agencies to take the following actions: 

  • The White House and U.S. EPA should update the Great Lakes action plan to address environmental injustice, climate resilience, and the next generation of risks to the Great Lakes.
  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should include large-scale natural infrastructure in the Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study to address extreme water level changes caused by climate change. 

Download the Great Lakes restoration fact sheet.