The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is holding a series of meetings this summer in several states to discuss the federal government’s new plan for restoring water quality in the Great Lakes. The $475-million draft plan, proposed in President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget, needs congressional approval before it can be implemented. But government officials are moving forward with public meetings and say they may issue requests for proposals as early as late summer 2009 for competitive grants for work to begin in early 2010.

“Administrator [Lisa] Jackson feels a great sense of urgency for more action to restore the Great Lakes,” says Cameron Davis, senior adviser to Jackson, EPA’s administrator. EPA says although toxic pollutant releases into the Great Lakes have gone down significantly over the past several years, only one of the 31 toxic “hot spots” identified as areas of concern in the U.S. more than 20 years ago has been fully restored.

The plan was developed by the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, an EPA-led, multi-agency group established during the Bush administration to address the most significant problems facing the Great Lakes, which span 750 miles from east to west. The existing Great Lakes Legacy Act, which provides funding for sediment cleanup in the Great Lakes, will be folded into the new initiative. The program will focus on five key areas: toxic substances, such as PCBs, and areas of concern; invasive species; near-shore health and runoff; habitat and wildlife protection and restoration; and monitoring and partnerships.

The program is included in the fiscal 2010 Interior and Environment appropriations bill, passed by the House on June 26. In the Senate, the Appropriations Committee cut the funding to $400 million but greenlighted the program.

Funding for the restoration work will be distributed through grants, inter-agency agreements and other mechanisms to municipalities, tribes, nonprofits and other stakeholders. Officials hope to have the plan finalized by September.