Great Lakes issues: It’s time to go beyond small ball

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


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 célèbre 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.

chicagoviewThese 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.

Lay a map of the region over Europe and it would cover approximately 50 percent of the continent. If the Great Lakes region was a country it would have the fourth largest economy in the world.

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.


6 thoughts on “Great Lakes issues: It’s time to go beyond small ball

  1. I agree Sir, The alewife management started in 1985/86 quietly, when they found out they could run out of alewives. DR. Tanner and the DNR always knew what the alewives did to native fish and the ecosystem from the beginning. They admit it now with Huron, but somehow it’s different in Lake Michigan (if you ask them) which is a waste of time. You are right, until we get past this alewife thing we are wasting billions of dollars and time we don’t have.

  2. I think if you want to about mis-management, you need to bring up alewife and salmon dynamics, especially since you are a Lake Michigan guy. I will refer you this article:

    The article is entitled: Management of Alewife Using Pacific Salmon in the Great Lakes: Whether to Manage for Economics or the Ecosystem?

    Here’s the abstract:
    The combined destructive effects of overfishing, habitat destruction, and invasive species, especially alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) led to the loss of the native top predator lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) from most of the Great Lakes by 1960. Alewife populations then exploded, creating nuisance die-offs. Public demands for action, coupled with control of sea lamprey, allowed fishery managers to consider stocking Pacific salmon to control alewife and establish a recreational fishery. This effort was successful, reducing alewife numbers and creating a recreational fishery that is estimated at $7 billion annually. This fishery management regime may no longer be viable as new invasive species continue to alter the ecosystem. Fishery managers face an interesting dilemma: whether to manage in the short term for a popular and economically important sport fishery or to embrace ecosystem change and manage primarily for native fish species that appear to be better suited to ongoing ecosystem changes. Such dilemmas occur in great lakes around the world as fishery managers seek to balance economic pressure with changes in their respective ecosystems, often brought about by invasive species.

    If we can’t get past this issue, which has one of the most easily and readily available managerial levers, well then there is no hope, and good luck.

  3. Amen Charles Amen. The laws seem pretty clear to me, the goal is obvious. But it seems bending if not breaking the laws seem to be the rule not the exception. We are (The Feds) spending millions below the barrier in Chicago to reduce an invasive species, and the DNR’s are spending milions trying to increase an invasive species, to dominant status above the barrier. You would think somebody would notice that.

  4. Jolly good show Chuck, as the U.S. and Canadian commissions responsible for controlling climate change time and again prove themselves inadequate at taxing gas at the pumps… with the thoughts of a good ole fellow named Harold holding to the problem as humans overpopulating the planet, maybe we should re-reverse the flow of the Chicago river with a $7 billion project to be performed by the Army Corps of Engineers… It’s not like satire isn’t allowed as a form of communication.

  5. The question I keep asking is Why do we, collectively, continue to disregard the value and our dependance upon these waters? I think I have the seed of an answer, and it is that Western Civilization, or is it European Civilization, has almost zero spiritual context for our relationship with nature, and the lakes in particular. This is not a God thing, but that we personally do not regard these lakes as being as important as life itself. Consider the difference from the Native Americans who regarded all of nature in a balanced relationship with themselves. We only regard nature as a hierarchical structure, us at the top, and it is therefore available for us to exploit and abuse as we wish for our own goals.

  6. Good article Gary. However you can’t play hard ball if they refuse to face or answer hard questions. Political badmitten, when we should be playing fast pitch!

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