New Year’s resolution: There are only five Great Lakes states

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The Echo prides itself on occasionally “upending the basin.”

Meaning we sometimes like to set aside basic assumptions and default positions to generate a critical look at an issue or policy.

Before we jump back on that same old Great Lakes treadmill as the new year begins, how about a little “upend the basin” thinking?

Keep an open mind when considering what follows and who knows, you may find something that sticks.

What qualifies a state to be a Great Lakes state?

The norm, geography as defined by shoreline, says there are eight Great Lakes states. While important, should geography be the sole determinant?

I say no, there’s more to it.

Here are my  arbitrary qualifications for state membership to our Great Lakes club.

  •  Geography — a state must border a Great Lake. That doesn’t guarantee entry. But the more shoreline a state has the better its chances.
  • Willingness to collaborate with other states to better the environmental health of the Great Lakes.
  • Willingness to be proactive in making the case to restore the Great Lakes and its environs.

Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania have so little shoreline that they don’t get automatic entry based on geography. Their combined Great Lakes coast is slightly more than 100 miles. More on those states in a minute.

Who’s in?

The layups first.

Michigan, of course. It’s surrounded and defined by the Great Lakes, has over the years been proactive in protecting them and even has an Office of the Great Lakes position to advise the governor.

Ohio  has a long shore on the most ecologically vulnerable of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie. It has one of the world’s great fisheries. But it is again at risk and may be nearing a tipping point. Plus, Ohio as perhaps the ultimate “swing state,” has political clout at the federal level. When Ohio speaks, D.C. listens.

Wisconsin is in too.

It has more than 200 miles of Lake Michigan shore and it too has been historically progressive in protecting Lake Michigan,although the current administration is providing reason to be concerned.

Now comes New York.

My knee jerk reaction was to think hard before letting New York into the Great Lakes club. When I hear New York  I don’t think Great Lakes, I think Manhattan. But that’s wrong.

New York has a long Lake Ontario border, is the world’s entry point to the lakes via the St. Lawrence Seaway and it has been proactive in fighting invasives. Besides, it’s New York so it’s in.

Yes to Minnesota

It makes perfect sense to include environmentally progressive Minnesota which borders  Lake Superior, the greatest of all the lakes.

The outliers  –  Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois.

None of the three has more than a relative few miles of Great Lakes coast so geography isn’t in their favor. They have to qualify based on the other two criteria.

I don’t think much about Pennsylvania and honestly in a free association test what immediately comes to mind is the Penn State football scandal. But that’s not a totally fair way to judge an entire state.

My perception is that Pennsylvania sort of goes through the motions related to Great Lakes issues and that’s fine. But it isn’t really a Great Lakes state.

Indiana? No way!

It treats its heavily industrialized and polluted northwest corner as a poor step child.

If one consistently read enviro reporter Gitte Laasby’s work when she was at the Northwest Indiana Post-Tribune, you’d get a picture of how Indiana sees this strip that borders Lake Michigan.

Sorry. It takes more than the Indiana Dunes to qualify as a Great Lakes state.

That leaves the elephant in the room, Illinois and with it, Chicago.

Let’s see….

… Chicago diverts over 2 billion gallons a day from Lake Michigan and continues to use water to support growth in the exurbs. It has a dirty river that runs through it and has proactively worked against Great Lakes health on the invasive species front. It’s also home to two antique mercury-emitting coal-fired power plants. They’re conveniently located in poor neighborhoods, by the way.

Travel 20 miles away from Lake Michigan and Illinois starts to look more like Indiana. No entry to the Great Lakes club for Illinois.

But wait. What about the fact that the USEPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office is in Chicago? The federal staff that works on all things Great Lakes.

That’s an easy fix.

Move it to Detroit or better yet, Toledo. Both are in the heart of the problems facing the lakes and would certainly be a better home than an isolated Chicago tower. There’s nothing like having the policymakers and agency experts work where the problems are.

Newly minted, five Great Lakes states 

Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and New York.

My newly defined Great Lakes states would have approximately 98 percent of the available shoreline in the U.S. It stretches from Minnesota on the west to New York on the east so it covers the breadth of the lakes.

It would include politically powerful states like Ohio and New York whose strength wouldn’t be diluted by the coastline and environmentally challenged outliers. There’s no justification for the governor of Indiana to have as much Great Lakes influence as the governor of Michigan.

After reading a proposal like this there’s a tendency to snipe at the plan. The shots usually start with that won’t work becauseor what about….?

This is a commentary meant to generate critical thinking so do that if you must. But when you’re done step out of your entrenched mindset and see if any of this works.

Because sometimes it makes sense to “upend the basin.”

What shakes out may be better than what we had.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Gitte Laasby previously worked at the Northwest Indiana Times. It has been updated to reflect that she actually worked at the Northwest Indiana Post Tribune.

9 thoughts on “New Year’s resolution: There are only five Great Lakes states

  1. Kara: Michigan has more Great Lakes shoreline than the other seven states combined, so giving each state a vote proportional to the length of shoreline is functionally equivalent to giving entire control to Michigan with none of the other seven states having any power. (Which some might argue would be a good thing, but probably not politically practical.)

    Now, if you got some bi-national agreement and included Ontario, then Ontario has even more than Michigan, but not an outright majority, so then the votes of the other states would come into play if Ontario and Michigan disagreed on an issue.


  2. Let’s face it folks the Great lakes and it’s major tributaries have historically been an open sewer system, and unfortunately continue to be on a slightly more limited scale. Water frontage on the GL have always been an industrial haven for the shortest distance to dump. It has only been the last couple decades that some towns and cities have tried to reclaim their shoreline for more appropriate uses. It has been like pulling teeth to get industry to relinquish some control. I suggest that a GL state is one that cleans up their shoreline and puts it back into the public domain. It is a frivolous argument anyway because business and industry will never give in because they control the system.

  3. All the Great Lakes and provinces dump too much stuff in the lakes, despoil the scenery with industry and otherwise have an impact. Those states with large amounts of lakeshore just spread their filth over a much larger area while IL and IN have to cram their share into a relatively small strip of lakeshore.

  4. I don’t think Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois should be taken out of the Great Lakes state group, there’s no doubt in my mind that there are plenty of people who care about the Great Lakes living in these states. However, I do feel that the more shoreline a state has on a Great Lake, the more that state is affected (i.e. economy, livelihood, health, etc) by the condition of that Great Lake. Therefore, I feel on decisions regarding the Great Lakes, the number of votes a state or providence has should coincide with its shoreline.

  5. On the other hand, who makes up a state anyway? Is Indiana its polluters? There are plenty of people there who work to protect the state and Lake Michigan. Maybe it’s not a good idea to define a state by the people and industries who trash it.

    Becky Hammond

  6. I don’t think you will be able to convince all the people that thoroughly enjoy the lake and its surrounding land of your narrow views.
    An Indiana Dunes State Park regular visitor

  7. I love outside-the-box thinking but was still prepared to dislike this premise. But boy, you make some good points. Driving through northwest Indiana (and southeast Illinois) gives a bit of a sense of horror. A too-prevailing view of the Great Lakes as simultaneous industrial dumping sites and basins of a needed resource is apparent there. Odd to view the scenery in that part of Indiana and stop to think of that body of water as drinking water for more than 10 million people. Thanks for a thought-provoking essay.

    Becky Hammond

  8. These commissions and committees seem to be all advisory or non-binding. This means all states can do what they want and they do. Executive Order 13112 regarding Invasive species,seems to be executive opinion 13112, many good statements but most if not all seem to be ignored. If the Asian Carp task force and the GLMRIS, are advisory only non-binding, what good is it to wait until 2015 for whatever plan they come up with, If all the states can ignore it anyway? The great lakes fishery commission says native fish should come first, if there’s a conflict with exotic fish. That ain’t working out now is it?

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