Restoring the Great Lakes 2.0: Keep it simple
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.
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.