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.
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.
… 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 because… or 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.