By Gary Wilson
It’s been a tough six months for the Great Lakes.
Federal funding has been scaled back for the restoration initiative and programs to fix our aging sewer systems are taking substantial hits. The effort to keep Asian Carp at bay muddles along, primarily relying on electrical barriers.
But that pales compared to what’s happening in the states.
The 2010 elections ushered in new business-friendly administrations in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio that believe that relaxing environmental protections should be a part of a jobs creation plan.
And they’ve been acting on their beliefs.
Wisconsin began by weakening wetland protections and trying to rollback phosphorous regulations. Lawmakers have started work on legislation to fast-track mining permits near Lake Superior.
Those same lawmakers are also considering a “presumptive permitting” process where applicant’s permits would automatically be approved if the short-staffed DNR didn’t decide in a certain time period.
Michigan chimed in by reducing funding for its water withdrawal permit program to a level where its ability to comply with the Great Lakes Compact is at risk, according to one expert.
It is also on the cusp of passing a law to prohibit state agencies from enacting regulations that are tougher than those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA regulations are meant to be a minimum standard with states free to be more stringent where necessary.
Then comes Ohio with legislation that would allow business to tap Lake Erie and related water sources almost without regard to potential damage that could be done. Its blatant use of water as a marketing tool versus a natural resource to be protected for generations to come jeopardizes the credibility of the Great Lakes Compact.
The details of these actions are important but of greater significance is the mindset behind them.
Perpetuating the rust belt
The mantra is now to rollback protections that took years to enact and make it easy for business to extract our natural resources. This ignores the long term economic benefit of environmental stewardship in exchange for potential short term economic and political gain.
Collaboration between the states is essentially non-existent as they compete for jobs in an environmental race to the bottom.
Which brings me to an event to be held in Detroit this October.
A Great Lakes “mega-event”
It’s billed as Great Lakes Week and combines the meetings of three prominent organizations that focus on Great Lakes issues.
The U.S. and Canadian International Joint Commission, the governors’ Great Lakes Commission and the environmental coalition Healing Our Waters will all be in Detroit at the same time and will collaborate to merge parts of their conferences.
The U.S. EPA hosted a press briefing in June to promote the event.
Cameron Davis, the EPA’s point man for the Great Lakes, kicked off the call saying Great Lakes Week would be a “precedent setting mega-event” and continued that it would have the “best and brightest minds” and they would be “united in taking action.”
The International Joint Commission’s U.S. Chair Lana Pollack said there would be “collaboration where there hasn’t always been.”
Pretty heady stuff from two of the most well-respected and prominent names In Great Lakes protection circles.
Other speakers pitched along similar themes and the lone question from the media related not to an environmental concern, but to the number of people who would attend. As in how much revenue would the conference generate for the Detroit economy?
Post-call questions were encouraged so I lobbed one at Pete Cassell who facilitated the call for the EPA.
It was a long, three-parter but its essence is how would the confluence of groups for Great Lakes Week address the degradation in protections by the states that we’ve seen this year?
Specifically, the actions in Wisconsin and Ohio and the general trend by the states to push Great Lakes and environmental protection to the backburner or off the stove?
Cassell responded quickly in an email saying “Great Lakes Week is intended to provide a platform for people to highlight progress and results, raise issues they care about and, as important, chart a pathway forward for their resolution.”
A dodge but fair enough. This press briefing was to pitch the event not lay out policy.
But come October in Detroit what will that “pathway forward” look like? What outcome will “united in action” lead to?
To Pollack’s “collaboration” statement, what form will that take and how will the states be involved?
A simple proposal
Here’s a proposal for the executives at Great Lakes Week.
At the conclusion of the conferences issue a joint statement.
Call on the region’s premiers, governors and legislators to throw off their rust belt yoke and truly collaborate to protect the lakes.
Challenge them to engage in an economic and environmental race to the top combining environmental stewardship with economic leadership.
Demand that water be used to support business but with a strong conservation ethic.
I’m sure the leadership of Great Lakes Week can wordsmith a positive, forward-looking message asking for responsibility and accountability from state and provincial governments.
Would the region’s “best and brightest minds” do that in Detroit?
If yes, then Great Lakes week may actually become a “precedent setting mega-event.”
Otherwise it could devolve into a week of cheerleading.