Great Lakes restoration: Beyond the money
What’s that business adage, If you’re not growing, you’re dying?
That’s a little harsh when applied to an issue like restoring the Great Lakes. Perhaps adapting or evolving should replace growing. But the dying part may apply, or at least losing relevance?
Let’s take a look.
When I first engaged in Great Lakes issues 10 years ago as an environmental group volunteer the battle cry was show us the money.
Simply put, everyone knew what was required to begin the process of restoring the Great Lakes. The missing link was an infusion of federal funding – billions of dollars – to jump start the work. In 2002 environmental groups began the long march to make the case to the executive branch and Congress for federal funding.
In 2004 the first milestone was reached when the Bush administration issued an executive order recognizing the Great Lakes as a region of “national significance. “ In 2005, $20 billion was identified as the cost to restore the Great Lakes. The Obama administration began to put money into a Great Lakes bank account in 2009 with investments that now total $1 billion and counting.
Progress has been made but of course with any undertaking of that magnitude there have been bumps in the road.
Initial funding put too much emphasis on measuring, monitoring and research versus action. Then there are the inevitable pet projects that divert limited resources from more worthy causes. Chicago’s Northerly Island is an example. And battling Asian carp was not part of the restoration plan and has consumed $150 million out of necessity.
But make no mistake, there have been real accomplishments.
Toxic hotspots like White Lake in Michigan are on the cusp of returning to good health with more in the works. Wetlands have been restored, there’s a nascent plan to deal with algae blooms and overall there has been a sense of cautious optimism.
However we’re now in a new financial and political environment. One that’s less friendly to spending of any sort let alone environmental projects.
Federal budgets continue to tighten and so does the availability of funds for the Great Lakes. The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed a 17 percent reduction in restoration funding for 2013 to $250 million. If that holds it means there has been an almost 50 percent reduction in restoration funding since 2009.
That’s significant but everyone knows that money alone won’t do the job and it can disappear in a political nanosecond.
It means Great Lakes restoration will have to incorporate political will and be required to make hard decisions. Regulation and enforcement – two taboo words in this election year – will have to be in play.
For example, regulation of agriculture runoff that leads to algal blooms may be needed if voluntary measures and financial incentives don’t work. That will be a tough one as no one wants to constrain farmers. But the fate of Lake Erie may depend on such a decision.
Thinking of Lake Erie takes me to …
…. Great Lakes Week in Cleveland
The Great Lakes intelligentsia gathers for their second Great Lakes Week conference in Cleveland next week. (Quick disclosure, I’ll be doing commentary for the Detroit Public TV / WVIZ Cleveland live coverage).
Representatives from U.S and Canadian federal governments will be there along with state agencies and a coalition of environmental groups. Many of the attendees are people who’ve done the heavy lifting to get Great Lakes restoration where it is.
They’re to be congratulated for their work. It has been a trek.
Recognition also needs to go to the environmental coalition Healing Our Waters. That coalition consisting of over 100 organizations bucked the odds and became the force that moved Great Lakes restoration from concept to reality.
They did it by staying together and staying on message. That message was and is about the funding.
But the restoration movement and Healing Our Waters have matured. They’re no longer like a startup tech company that runs on enthusiasm and venture capital money.
They’re more like a successful tech company that has gone public and now must manage its business for the long term. The easy and glamorous part is over. Like a business, the movement must plan and adapt or lose relevance.
The plan must confront the reality that Great Lakes restoration is subject to the financial limitations and political vagaries of Congress and the executive branch like any other federal program. While funding remains important, the message and focus now needs to be more diverse and creative.
Election year uncertainty
This is an election year so who knows what will happen to federal support for the Great Lakes in January.
A best case scenario says the status quo will continue. Worst case is it’s discontinued and left to the states, which have no money and probably no desire to pick up an abandoned federal program.
A colleague recently made this rhetorical statement; please tell me that the Great Lakes Week’s plan for the future will be about more than pleading for federal funding.
I’ve looked at the various Great Lakes Week agendas and they’re full of success stories, knowledgeable speakers and future challenges. All good stuff.
But the bar has been raised.
Like those successful tech companies who must now manage for the long term, the architects of Great Lakes restoration must adapt in the face of financial and political headwinds.
Changing with the realities
How should the restoration community proceed in the face of new financial and political realities?
- They could take refuge in the newly released U.S. / Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the guidance it will provide. But I’d tread lightly before hitching my star to that deal. It could easily get lost in international platitudes and politeness and is easy for the two governments to ignore.
- Coming soon is a EPA sponsored Great Lakes Advisory Board that is supposed to set a future course for the Great Lakes. Sounds good but it’s hard to imagine it will be much more than process versus results oriented with lots of compromises. Design by committee is less than optimal.
- Or they could play the outside game and develop their own plan for the next generation of Great Lakes restoration. They could engage the federal government where it makes sense but it wouldn’t be bound by the feds. That’s not a bad place to be and is what I’d do.
The Great Lakes intelligentsia as I affectionately refer to them consists of some of the best thinking minds I’ve encountered, anywhere.
They’ll need to marshal their creative resources for restoration to have continued success.
Great Lakes Week in Cleveland would be a great location to start planning the next five years, and it needs to be about more than the money.