The Great Lakes region is pretty good at playing small ball when it comes to tackling its problems.
Here’s what I mean.
In 2007 Gitte Laasby, then at the Gary (Ind.) Post-Tribune, broke the story that oil giant BP had received a permit allowing for increased pollution to Lake Michigan at its Whiting plant. The Chicago Tribune quickly brought the story to its vast market and the flood gates of protest opened.
Environmental groups were outraged and they rallied Illinois politicians who quickly picked up the cause. Media outlets loved it because it involved that good versus evil component — big foreign (British) oil company dumping pollutants in our drinking water — Lake Michigan.
BP couldn’t stand the heat and agreed to keep pollution discharges at then existing levels. The big fuss turned into a small victory.
But the same permit is up for renewal and significant issues still remain. The underlying principles of having to fight in the permit process trenches against a powerful and connected polluter mean that breaking even is likely the best possible outcome.
There are other small ball examples:
- The 2009 discovery that Asian Carp could be in Lake Michigan set off another firestorm of outrage and media attention. But today the primary defense is still the same electrical barriers which the carp may have breached four years ago.
- In 2011 massive dead-zone producing algae blooms in Lake Erie dominated Great Lakes news. Everyone knows that agricultural runoff was the prime cause but we’re still in the study mode and are asking for compliance with voluntary best practice measures from agricultural. Voluntary compliance is rarely successful.
- The current cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre is low lake levels. Hardly a day goes by that my Google alert for Great Lakes doesn’t yield a low-lake level story. Yet short-term dredging, while necessary, is the only solution on the table. Addressing the impact of climate change on lake levels got a cold shoulder from the U.S and Canadian commission responsible for providing advice on this issue.
These issues are all unresolved and are likely to remain that way for some time.
While playing small ball on issues is necessary at times, we should reach higher. Consider the magnitude of the Great Lakes region.
And we’ve all heard the statistic that the lakes hold 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh surface water.
This is potentially a world-class region and as such it deserves world-class solutions to its problems. And we have the ability to design and implement those solutions.
Passage of the Great Lakes Compact is an example.
It took the eight states and the federal government 10 years from concept to law. Yes, we still have to close a loophole or two and get its implementation right. If that happens we’ll have accomplished something significant for the region for the ages.
Instead it seems we’re content to play small ball.
The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative started out as a grand scheme. In 2005 the Bush administration identified $26 billion in needed spending for sewage infrastructure, cleaning up toxic legacy sites and wetland and near shore restoration. That was a lofty program.
Then $13 billion for sewers was stripped from the final document and the balance of the initiative was poorly planned trying to do too much with too little.
Five years on only $1 billion has actually been budgeted and a lot of that has been spent on peripheral or pet projects. The amount dwindles every year or two.
Besides, even the original $26 billion figure was inadequate.
Crain’s Detroit Business recently reported that it would cost $26 billion just to fix Southeast Michigan’s waterways.
What to do?
Bite the bullet and call the restoration initiative what it is; a good start at cleaning up the toxic legacy sites. Reset its expectations. To continue to selling it as restoration on a grand scale sets expectations that can’t be met and risk that it will be labeled as another failed federal program.
Remember the buzz from a year ago about re-reversing the Chicago River? A study was released that said it’s feasible for a cost of $7 billion, give or take a billion. But it languishes which is too bad as the environmental and economic benefits it would provide are significant.
Why not go big? That’s what Chicago did when it reversed the river in the late 19th century.
Re-group and re-double the efforts. Detractors of the plan counted on it falling by the wayside after the initial splash of attention and that’s what has happened.
How can it be resurrected?
Start now to build coalitions and get some business interests onboard. Pitch the governors, they’re the key. If the eight Great Lakes governors presented a viable plan and a united front on the Chicago River, its chances for success would go from none to very possible.
Governors need to be prompted
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is hosting the region’s governors on Mackinac Island in a few weeks. If I were an entity that had an interest in the Chicago River and how to better it, and therefore the region, I’d be camped out on Mac Isle talking to every governor and staffer I could get 10 minutes with.
What a great time and location to start the process. Heck, it could even be branded calling it the Mackinac Island initiative for a 21st century Chicago River or similar. I’m sure there’s a marketing guru out there who could spiff that up and make it presentable to the public.
There’s nothing wrong with small ball Great Lakes environmental work. It’s necessary and many times is the best that can be done. But too much emphasis on it means perpetually working to make things less bad instead of better. It’s time to turn the corner.
A region half the geographical size of Europe with the world’s fourth largest economy deserves to have its leaders aim higher.
That’s not possible when we’re content playing small ball.