Restoring the Great Lakes 2.0: Keep it simple

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


How can a newly-formed group of professionals help move Great Lakes restoration closer to that “new standard of care” promised by the Obama administration in 2010?

That was the charge in Chicago this week at the EPA’s Great Lakes Advisory Board two-day meeting to address the agency’s responsibility in implementing restoration.

The board is comprised of scientists, environmentalists, business representatives, native Americans, a foundation executive, agency staff and more.

The Obama administration’s Great Lakes point person, Cameron Davis, kicked things off with a restoration 101 presentation and the meeting was rolling.

The questions the board is “charged” with responding to are as diverse as whether to put more focus on big projects at the expense of smaller ones, how much measuring and monitoring is enough and what role climate change should play in restoration planning.

Veteran Great Lakes executive David Ullrich chairs the board and it’s his job to distill what will be a ton of input into a relatively short letter of advice to the EPA — no small task.

Not a fan chicagoview

I’m not a big fan of advisory boards. In my corporate experience advisers and consultants rarely added value and mostly served as an unnecessary crutch. And I’ve repeatedly questioned the need for this one. Existing staff usually knows what to do and how to do it.

Besides, the Great Lakes have been studied to death for years and the whole selling point used to justify the request for billions of dollars from Congress was that the region knew what needed to be done. It just needed the resources — money — to do the work.

Yet here we are three years later asking advisers for input.

After two days of listening to Great Lakes discussion, a few thoughts for the advisory board and its charge:

  • Keep it simple. With 11 agencies involved in Great Lakes restoration the initiative is already overly bureaucratic and unnecessarily complex. The program is better off when projects stay with the EPA
  • Take on the big projects. It’s nice to remove a dam or restore a wetland in a remote area but is that where the biggest impact can be achieved? It makes more sense to put $20 million to $30 million into restoring the Detroit and Grand Calumet Rivers than to piddle the money away on dozens of scattered low-impact projects.
  • Prioritize values over metrics. Dithering over metrics and measures of success are a potential time and energy drain and can be rife with politics. The authors of The Upcycle — William McDonough and Michael Braungart — say in most big projects metrics are wrongly put at the top of the priority list. What can be accomplished and measured with the least amount of resources drives the work. Instead they say to place your values first and the metrics will take care of themselves.

Nuance and subtlety

I’m a fan of nuance and subtlety. It’s under-recognized and important and I’d be remiss to not mention the comments of two board members.

Michael Isham, a tribal council representative from Lake Superior, spoke to the values question when he simply and eloquently explained how water quality impacts people who depend on the Great Lakes for a subsistence living. It’s not more complex than that.

Environmental Justice was given the short shrift on the formal agenda until Molly Flanagan from the Joyce Foundation continued to press — she raised the issue three times. Finally, it was moved to the top of the agenda for the next meeting.

It’s not complex

Back to the advisory board’s chair Ullrich and the EPA’s Davis.

In the very early days of Great Lakes restoration discussion I was part of a meeting with various environmental groups and interested parties in Washington, D.C. The question was asked, What needs to be done?  The task fell to Ullrich to articulate the issues.

The essence of his response, as I remember it from 2004 or so, was it’s known and he ticked a list that is probably only slightly different from what we’re looking at today.

The EPA’s Davis was at that meeting and he’s now at the top of the Great Lakes restoration tree. As the senior advisor to the EPA Administrator on Great Lakes issues his vote carries a lot of weight.

Ullrich and Davis are long-time colleagues and can probably finish each other’s sentences. They’re driving the Great Lakes restoration bus and, my occasional policy differences with them aside, deservedly so.

Great Lakes restoration initiatives need not be complex unless they are made so by us.

Give Ullrich and Davis simple and direct guidance. Minimize the political considerations and make the advice value-oriented.

That’s the best chance for success.


21 thoughts on “Restoring the Great Lakes 2.0: Keep it simple

  1. Smaller teams have to play a 3-5-3 defense and use their speed to make tackles. Bigger guys can just use a 46, leave one guy back at safety and hawk to the ball. The 46 is really a big lie, you’d rather play a 52 eagle, but somehow hawking to the ball seems to work better.

  2. If I may from the world I come from. If you have a hundred people on an assembly line building an engine, but one guy is pouring sand in the crankcase, thus ruining the engine and canceling out the efforts of the other 99. He does this because the lost production means he gets to work overtime. I went to a GM foundry once because they were sending me 35% bad castings exhaust manifolds with dirt holes in them. We machined them and sold them back to GM, but couldn’t with dirt holes. I got the pony show tour, a big meeting with the top brass, and the Quality Dept. had a stack of quality plans 2 feet high on the table, showing good results on paper. Thier expert “wolfgang” (not making that up) said they were good parts. I took an escort and took my own tour, pointing out the dirt balls that were washing right into the metal being poured in, at a rate of about 35% of the molds. They had a $200,000 dollar camera system to watch for this, no one was watching TV. This plant had the Q1 Quality first yada yada but the results weren’t there. I got out of Quality control, because they all knew the words but close enough and put it on the truck was the rule. You have probably all bought a defective product at some time, even tho it was advertised as the best! The Quality and future of our lakes is at stake, the defects as plain as the nose on your face. However the “system” wont allow us to fix it!

  3. Dear Joe, I am not a captain, just a guy who screwed up and volunteered when the DNR asked for suggestions, not knowing any plan, yours, mine, anyones plan that threatens the alewives is D.O.A. you get lip service but it’s getting harder to swallow. Your football analogy is interesting. If I may play off it, with several options the quarter back has many weapons, but he keeps playing the same play to make himself look good, and the opposing team takes advantage of it losing the game over and over. Of course he blames the defense, or the sun was in his eyes everytime, nonetheless the game is lost. Thus the whole team loses.

  4. Bob, the only boarding agency I’d be comfortable with boarding my ship would be a troupe of 3 foot unlucky midgets. Ballast laws could be enforced at the local “truck stop”. Otherwise, as I believe Tom may have already mentioned, a hydrological separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River system does not ensure an ecological separation. Furthermore, the immediate effect would be to stagnate Chicago’s water supply. Something Peoria has apparently been able to cope with… I suspect it might have something to do with the moving waters of the Illinois River.

  5. Well Well, one against, the rest no comment? From the adaptive summary Page 3 “funded by congress to restore and protect the Great Lakes” “requiring long term action to further RESTORE and sustain a healthy Great Lakes ecosystem” Anyone willing to say we have a healthy ecosystem? Page 11 Defines the action plan “as actions taken to prevent stress to ecosystems” protection of the Great Lakes essential” Good stuff. How is increasing alewives, preventing stress to the ecosystem? Science based? How? How can we actually do this plan? Well it seems there’s more gobies in Lake Michigan now than Perch and walleye combined. Perch and Walleye eat gobies, lets start there. From Understanding Carp Population Dynamics:a key to control: Bajer,Sorenson “The size of ALL populations of fish including common carp is ultimately determined by recruitment and survival rates” “Stocking of predator species is essential to control numbers of young carp” end quote. So restoring native predators is but one tool in the “tool box” we can use to protect the great lakes, one we can easily do and science based. So why can’t we do it?

  6. Tom, Captain Tom, dear sir, Earl; without knowing much about fishing, I’m fairly certain what you’re talking about with regards to salmon and alewives is true. If you catch a bunch of asian carp, grind them into the cheapest fishmeal anyone has ever seen to feed salmon fingerlings, it still would be too expensive to keep alewives. Unfortunately, all I know how to do is run the Earl Campbell triple option. I don’t know if anyone has ever seen it, but it’s the play where Earl Campbell shows up in the huddle, because he’s quarterback, and calls the triple option. He has the choice of handing the ball off to the fullback, Earl Campbell, or running the option. At that point he has the choice of tossing the ball to Earl Campbell while he is on the run. Of course, he never tosses the ball. Why? Because he’s Earl Campbell. And the negative votes and comments keep rolling in as if the touchdown he made never existed. Nobody gives a reason or rationalizes it, the touchdown just never happened. Fishmeal anyone?

  7. Dear Bob, Yes sir I agree, stopping the invasive species from getting in is the best way. There is already a pile of people fighting for that right now, I support the efforts. However barriers (even filling in the Chicago river) only put a control in one spot, this control only restricts movement, it does not reduce the invasive population. The Feds (Chadderton) has said it will take 20-30 years to block off the Asian Carp from the great lakes. Do you think we have 20-30 years? Look what the carp have done in that same time frame, 23 states. billions, doubling every year etc… We already have a massive invasive problem, unrestricted. Since we cannot stop invasive species from getting in, or we’re very bad at stopping them. Our best option is to make our lakes and rivers useless to them, already occupied, no room at the inn shall we say. Biotic-resistance they call it. Google it, works anywhere, predator prey is how nature works. The entire system is threatened/affected, we need a system wide control. Having and maintaining a high native predator base makes the entire system a control. Versus. a barrier or poison which only affects smal areas. The feds admit we have predators for asian carp, (all baby fish have predators) but they need to be abundant. Both Carp czars John Goss and Jim Bredin admitted restoring native predators does not intefere in any way with any other asian carp plans. (This would include your concerns) So what’s the problem? A healthy and thriving native fish population, is more resistant to invasive species, that’s what we want right? There’s no threat of having too many native fish, we know how to reduce native fish, so what’s the problem? The DNR’s say there’s too many predators now for the alewives, and native fish are also alewife predators, a fact they fail to mention. They fail to mention a lot of things. So alewives and every invasive you can think of including asian carp or a healthy native fish population? Seems simple enough to me.

  8. Dear Joe, I have already done that, way back. I actually made copies of the MDNR Saginaw Bay Recovery Plan, and sent it to the MDNR Fishery staff, just in case they didn’t read it. I was led to it by the team leader. Fishery Div, is responsible they have last call, regardless of which or how many advisory boards are involved. The fishery Div. has decided the only way we can fight invasive species is to fill lake Michigan back up with alewives. The Saginaw plan was the only real restoration, this resulted in the Huron Native fish rebounding by mostly just stocking/restoring the Walleye population. Now no stocking required. This resulted in the loss of the alewives, which was the goal of the plan. This GLRI Plan is very good, we need to actually restore the natural/native fish population. Not just be another feel good pass around “look we got antoher plan” thing. (politics) Education is the key to everything. The average reader as you call them, thinks the guv-mint is actually restoring the Great Lakes, they got plans! Can’t really restore anything until we quit worrying about what happens to the alewives. The adaptive GLRI plan is what we have been supposed to be doing all along. That’s what the average reader doesn’t understand, but he’s expected to pay fo it, even if they don’t actually do it.

  9. Tom M,
    I’m all for restoration, and removal of invasive species. But the first step has to be stopping the introduction of new invasives and/or contaminants.
    So to me the begining has to be restoring the divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi as well as Hudson River watersheds; Preventing new chemicals like dechlorane from ending up in the lakes; and actually enforcing ballast water laws, I’d be alright with the appropriate agencies boarding ships before they enter the St Lawrence from the Atlantic to physically ensure that laws are complied with.

  10. The first logical step I would take as an advisory board would be to look into ongoing and proposed programs of the different departments you are trying to coordinate. First, I would put focus on what seems to be working from a restoration viewpoint. Secondly, I would try to find programs which fall under the wrong department and change directorship to the correct department. This would allow me to find the programs that aren’t working. And finally, I would look at what proposed programs offer the likelihood of real success. I then have a basis for the justification of my advisory board’s identity, and a real priority list. The GLRI is here. If it’s a mistake, it’s going to be sticking around for a while.

  11. Not realistic? Dellineation of philosophies? Gary can write as he pleases. However didn’t using facts, and digging for the truth to put in print used to be the way the “Free Press” helped control Gov-mint corruption and abuse? The misinformation is coming from the DNR and the people we trust to protect our natural resources. Restoration Initiative is pretty simple, restore is pretty simple. The ramifications of failing to restore the resource as planned is obvious, and affects the average reader IE Taxpayer/stake holder/ everybody because they think these “plans” are restoring our resources, it’s in the name of the plan! The Dingell Johnson Restoration Act money is being stolen to plant salmon and Trout, the fact that’s what they’re actually doing kinda bears that out. They’re not restoring squat, converting rivers to anadromous habitat (saltwater fish) is not restoring anything. Simply put restore means restore! So let’s actually restore it!

  12. Simply put, the only thing the GLRI needs to identify is its role as an advisory committee and how the measures I’ve mentioned relate to identified projects. Having said that, the only way you can talk about restoration efforts is in terms of project identification and the related measures I’ve mentioned. To suggest someone needs to put values on a priority list regarding restoration efforts is the equivalent of telling someone to go “occupy Wall Street.” (how do we fix the Great Lakes? Values, man.) To demand a clear delineation of philosophies in the process writing an article about the GLRI is not realistic. I haven’t been following this issue close enough to know where Gary stands in the spectrum of communication with the GLRI, somewhere between friendly advice and go “occuppy Wall Street.” I just know that this misinformation probably isn’t intendended for the average reader. If it was or is, Gary would or should have no business being in his position.

  13. Joe,I hope Gary is doing an article on the Adaptive Framaework. I’d like to see all the media do an article on it. I view restoration as undoing what we did. The conversion I speak of is converting Lake Michigan into a saltwater fishery, which has no benefit to the ecosystem, requires sacrificing the natural ecosystem. Converting the way we handle pollution etc… yes i would agree. “To further restore a healthy Great lakeS ecosysytem” this is a good plan, we need to do it now,for the common good, which is the healthy ecosystyem, not just pass it around, and say “Yep we got us another plan” just talk. 9 years ago, the DNR excuses made no sense, Marinas took all the weeds, not enough food etc..(restoring Perch) after some research, it was clear the problem was they were protecting the alewives. 9 years later, after many meetings (at all levels) many plans, several studies, the problem still is they’re protecting the alewives. Which I believe is the whole drift of Gary’s article, talk, complex etc…
    I could go back to college and get several PHD’s and the problem would still be they’re protecting the alewives! I have 4 milk crate files full of studies old and new that say the same thing as the Adaptive framework, restore the Natural order of things. The only thing stopping us is the alewife protection plan. It is that simple.

  14. Tom, I believe in restoration and conversion. Generally speaking, it seems if one focuses on implementing the Clean Water Act and helping fishery departments do their jobs, the Great Lakes should function properly. If you focus on restoration and things aren’t working for the general populace, you have to change what you’re doing. You have to make a conversion. I’m assuming Gary read the GLRI Adaptive Framework. I’m also assuming he’s writing an article.

  15. No one wants to read the GLRI Adaptive Framework? It’s only 32 pages, compared to most studies/plans pretty simple. This article and the whole point is restoration. The word restoration is used 17 times in the summary alone. We have restoration versus conversion, pick one, that’s simple enough. We all need to be on the same page, also simple enough, you would think. Turning rivers into anadromous habitat isn’t restoration it’s conversion. What good is cleaning up pollution if it only makes it better habitat for invasive species? Which was a deterent at one time, clean up now helping to increase the bio-pollution, invasive species. (The asian Carp are really thick,but look how nice we restored the shoreline, or pcb removed) Farfetched? We can say that now about gobies, mussels etc… pick one. I like restoration, we need restoration, but selective restoration, partial restoration, is going nowhere. This all could be very simple if we focus on restoration, not kinda but really.

  16. The financial success of undertakings involving construction are derived from safety, reliability, and economical effectiveness, in that order generally speaking. And would probably dictate the political arguements behind a certain set of values; a position that applies to what. How many people are injured, how long your efforts will last, and a bottom line are not energy draining. Anything beyond these measures does not seem to effectively apply from a political viewpoint. Values in and of themselves are a form of prioritization.

  17. Here is another one for Gary. The Muskegon Lake AOC is another classic example of GLRI money and future “Branding money” now being misdirected by local unethical Muskegon area politicians with big corporation money ties. Millions of dollars GLRI funding now has much of the Muskegon Lake AOC shoreline restored. Some of those involved with city council Muskegon and staffers that used our GLRI money are now working behind closed doors to steal the multi-million dollar Fisherman’s Landing 22+ acres of deep water boating and camping Muskegon Lake access that is public trust protected by the Land and Water Conservation Fund grant (LWCF-26-00795). The worst part of all this is some of the local area AOC Muskegon River & Lake environmentalist working so hard to save Muskegon Lake are now in jeopardy of losing their jobs if they speak out against the local political corruption promoted by the Muskegon port developers and Republican Governor Snyder supporters. Unfortunately the bias MLive Muskegon Chronicle is firmly in the pockets of the big corporate developers. The Lansing MDNR is well aware of the city Muskegon and Governor Snyder administration threat to Fisherman’s Landing and the need to protect our Fisherman’s Landing public trust grant (26-00795).

  18. Gary Wilson is correct. Ironically not all advisory boards follow their own missions. At the White Lake AOC the WLPAC is suppose to be promoting West Michigan jobs, tourism, and economic development. However the politicians on the WLPAC, with one being the mouthy activist city Whitehall council person, are actively working to kill hundreds of jobs, property taxes for my roads, and tourism dollars in the Whitehall Township area where I live.

  19. I would ask all of you to read the Great Lakes Restoration initiative update posted here on the GLIN news. Adaptive Science based framework. This fits Garys article here and the points he makes. It looks very good, I would like to be involved in the “restorations” they speak of. However you read the plan, and tell me how we can increase and maintain the alewives at dominant status by predator manipulation, and do the things/goals set forth in this plan? Like “Native species and habitats are protected and thriving” “Potential threats or further damage have been eliminated or reduced as much as possible” How can we do both?

  20. Very good article Gary, I agree simple is best. I believe pretty much all of these “advisory committees” were supposed to be formed to coordinate the efforts of all parties involved. At least I’m sure it says that in every ones statements so far. But the advisory handle means business as usual, usually. Each stakeholder argues for thier too big too fail angle, and the “politically correct” answers fly. “That’s an excellent point, we’ll get back to you on that, or we’ll look into that”. I’ve been to these meetings, the results seem to be another round of meetings. There are many things that can be done for free or at very low cost,some things that have to be done to fix the problem, but they’re still “looking into that”.

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