To say that Great Lakes governors have been the weak link in efforts to protect the regional environment is, I’ll use polite terms, an understatement.
Here’s what I mean.
The Obama Administration has poured a billion dollars into Great Lakes restoration with emphasis on cleaning up legacy toxic hotspots. Sure, the initiative has flaws but there is measureable
Mayors are engaged via their Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.
Water conservation and improving storm water runoff practices are among their priorities. Their new director, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, looks like he’ll pick up where predecessors like Richard Daley of Chicago and George Heartwell of Grand Rapids left off — leading a strong mayoral Great Lakes effort.
Where are the governors?
While I can easily list what the feds and mayors are doing, it’s a stretch with the governors. Yes, they signed off on the Great Lakes Compact in 2008, but that was easy. It didn’t require anything of them at the time. Four years hence the hard part – implementation of its conservation requirements – lags in most states.
Governors have been focused on jobs. Fair enough, that’s to be expected. But when it comes to the environment it’s been benign neglect, or worse, out of no great necessity.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed a weak water conservation law that was essentially written by business interests. It disenfranchises citizens and violates the spirit if not the letter of the Great Lakes Compact. Ironically Ohio borders on Lake Erie, the most vulnerable of the Great Lakes and the one that needs the most protection.
The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters says that Gov. Scott Walker has proven to be “the most anti-conservation governor in Wisconsin’s history.” It cited nine examples to support its claim, including an “attempt to eliminate recycling programs and fast track the filling of wetlands.” Wisconsin had historically been seen as a leader on environment issues.
Enter Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
The Council’s website says its mission is “to encourage and facilitate environmentally responsible economic growth through a cooperative effort between the public and private sectors…..”
(Walker and Kasich must not be aware of the mission statement.)
The Council has been a sleepy group and if you’ve heard of it at all it was probably in reference to the compact.
Snyder has an opportunity to change that.
He said he plans to convene a “summit” of the governors on Mackinac Island next year to “coordinate strategies” to deal with invasive species, Asian carp being the most visible.
That makes sense to Joel Brammeier who said he’s “hoping on invasive species in particular the states start to take a more collaborative and aligned role to maximize their strength.”
Brammeier is president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes and has a unique perspective. He was a long-time Michigan resident and has focused much of the past ten years on invasive species issues.
A Mackinac Island assignment
But let’s hope Snyder keeps prompting the governors at the carp summit. There are areas that
need their attention. Here are three.
- Tell the governors to take ownership of the Great Lakes Compact and aggressively implement and enforce water conservation laws and measures. Come January none of the current governors were in office when the compact passed. Water is the region’s greatest natural, and I hesitate to say this, economic asset. They need to proactively embrace conservation and use water, including groundwater, wisely.
- Challenge the governors to an environmental race to the top. Since 2010 there has been a mindset that says relax environmental protections to the level of the state that does the least. That’s typical jobs versus the environment mentality. Everyone loses and it perpetuates the rust belt image if not the reality. In a race to the top no state will have that perceived advantage and everyone wins.
- Tell them to lead by example in their own state as Snyder wants to do. Emphasize that protecting the environment shouldn’t be compartmentalized. It’s important that everyone incorporate conservation considerations into their daily work.
Snyder’s message, like most executive policy presentations, leaves a lot to be determined.
The hot-button fracking issue was kicked down the road to a study. That’s easy. And how much political capital will Snyder be willing to expend to implement his programs when they get resistance from his own party? That’ll test his political will.
And Snyder can also be an environmental enigma so let’s not put him in the conservation hall of fame just yet.
He signed a law that weakens sand dune protections this year and in his policy message he took an oblique slap at federal coal regulations, implying that they may hurt the economy. That argument was widely rejected in the presidential election.
But he mentioned climate change not in terms of, Is it happening? Instead, Snyder asked, How do we deal with it? And in his message he talked about using less energy, and presumably water, instead of getting more.
I’m not so naïve that I believe Snyder will try to convince his conservation-challenged counterparts to engage based on a meeting on Mackinac Island. But this is about opportunity and Snyder has created one for himself and his colleagues.
It’s an opportunity for governors to prioritize and harmonize economic and environmental efforts, not play them against each other. Any result won’t be perfect but it will be better than a race to the bottom.
With Quinn as his co-chair, he’ll be working with an old-school liberal who has a conservation conscience. But Quinn is not a hopeless ideologue.
Let’s hope Quinn and Snyder – Democrat and Republican – can lead the Great Lakes governors out of the environmental doldrums.
If they do, all eight Great Lakes states will win.