The Great Lakes Protection Fund was developed after a series of increasingly cooperative efforts to address the ecological problems of the largest single source of freshwater in the world. The governors of the Great Lakes states pledged $97 million to create the Fund to help protect and restore their shared Great Lakes resources. They created the Fund as a private, nonprofit corporation in 1989.

This 12-minute film explores the vision and leadership that created and built the Fund and demonstrates the power and impact that such a unique collaboration has had on the ecosystem and the economy of the region. Film by Ravenswood Media.

The Fund is the first private, permanent endowment created to benefit a specific ecosystem.

The governors designed the Fund to catalyze the continuous development of new technologies, innovative methods, and practical regional actions to improve the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem. They, with their states’ legislatures, directed the Fund to:

  • operate as a private, permanent endowment, capitalized with a one-time contribution of public funds.
  • finance projects that advance the goals of the Great Lakes Toxic Substances Control Agreement and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, notably restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem.
  • nurture cooperation of leaders from state legislatures, local governments, business and industry, labor, universities, environmental organizations and conservation groups.
  • include a discretionary revenue stream for individual states so that their priorities could be supported.
  • not expend any public funds at any time.
  • not support lobbying for legislation or regulation, or to influence administrative process or otherwise; not support regulation, standard setting or imposition of fines; and not substitute for government funding of water programs.

In response, the Fund developed project funding guidelines, periodically issued requests for project proposals, and has collaboratively assembled teams to undertake projects. Fund-supported teams have:

  • Designed, installed and tested the world’s first series of ballast water filtration and disinfection systems on working vessels;
  • Developed, demonstrated and shared the first set of protocols to evaluate the effectiveness of ballast water treatment—on ship, on the shore, and in the lab;
  • Developed, verified, and used the first set of methods to evaluate “hatch-out” of organisms that remain in ballast tanks after water is discharged;
  • Designed and deployed the first remote monitoring technologies to track water levels, pumping activity, and water chemistry in ballast tanks while ships are underway;
  • Supported the design, development and launch of 38 local environmental grant- making programs that leveraged Fund support 15-fold by raising nearly $10 million in funds for coastal community foundations in all Great Lakes states and the Province of Ontario;
  • Restored more natural flows in over 1500 miles of basin rivers through collaborative re-operation of more than 100 hydroelectric facilities;
  • Pioneered new ways to finance, facilitate and evaluate the removal of more than a dozen dams in rivers that feed the lakes;
  • Designed, deployed and evaluated the first series of two-stage drainage ditches to restore natural flows and riparian cover in agricultural landscapes;
  • Created and deployed a series of planning and assurance tools—including whole farm planning, nutrient yardsticks, rotational grazing guidance, and best management practice warranties—used by hundreds of farms to remove sediment and nutrients from basin waters;
  • Designed, deployed, evaluated and exported a water quality trading system that removed nutrients from the Great Lakes and became the basis for the national strategy on water quality trading;
  • Deployed the first rain barrels in an urban setting in the United States, beginning a movement that continues to grow in the basin and beyond;
  • Developed and tested modeling frameworks and measurement tools that track/estimate/predict how changed water uses lead to improved hydrological and biological conditions;
  • Created and sustained the forum for the design and development of what became the Great Lakes St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact and associated Regional Agreement, providing over $1 million for expert advice, travel support and staff time;
  • Developed the criteria for sustainably managed forest lands, certifying over 700,000 acres in New York state, and leading to certification of over 10,000,000 acres in basin states, adding to previously certified lands in Minnesota and Pennsylvania, protecting the lakes with improved land management.

The Fund continues to seek additional projects that identify, demonstrate and promote new regional actions to improve the health of the Great Lakes. This work is possible because of the prudent investment of the Fund’s endowment.


Seven of the Great Lakes states have provided one-time contributions to the endowment totaling $81 million. The Fund receives no ongoing government support. Their membership contributions are proportional to each state’s usage of Great Lakes waters:

  1. $15,000,000


  2. $25,000,000


  3. $1,500,000


  4. $12,000,000

    New York

  5. $14,000,000


  6. $1,500,000


  7. $12,000,000


The states’ contributions are invested to produce income and to maintain the permanent endowment’s buying power over time. The Fund’s Board of Directors is prohibited from spending any of the states’ funds, and can only use or spend funds that it earns by prudent investment of the original one-time public contribution.

Two-thirds of the Fund’s net income is dedicated to regional projects and teams that produce tangible improvements to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem. The remaining one-third must be returned annually to the member states, in proportion to their original contribution, for each state’s discretionary Great Lakes priorities.

The states thus receive two distinct types of return on their original investment: the benefits of the corporation’s financial support of regional project teams, and an annual discretionary income stream in cash. The board of directors has committed investment earnings of $96 million to regional project teams, and the state share payback mechanism has resulted in the return of $55 million back to the states.