Can a “systems guy” lead for Michigan and the Great Lakes?

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson

Jon Allan describes himself as a “systems guy” and says that’s what drives his world-view. That’s important to know because his current “system” happens to be the Great Lakes and the waters of Michigan.

That’s how his boss sees things too.  Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s charge to Allan when he hired him a year ago was to develop and drive a strategy for the Great Lakes.

Allan is the Consumers Energy executive currently “on loan” who was tabbed by Snyder to run Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes. That’s the cabinet-level position that “leads policy development and implements programs to protect, restore and sustain our most precious natural resource,” according to the state website.

Allan travels the length and breadth of Michigan describing what his office does. I caught up with him in Muskegon last week where he was speaking to a civic group.

We covered a wide range of topics.

Allan said part of the Michigan strategy for the Great Lakes is get the eight governors and two Canadian premiers to re-engage on economic and conservation issues. That’s what drove a Mackinac Island “Summit” spearheaded by Snyder in May. The collective group had not met since 2005.

“We’re better when we’re together,” Allan said. A follow up meeting of the governors and premiers is planned for 2014 in Chicago.

Non-committal on big issues

Big issues like the Waukesha diversion request and separating the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River face Allan in the near term, but he declined to discuss specifics. Instead he deferred to broad-brush generalities and diplomatic-speak.

On physical separation designed to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes he said it’s more important to focus on “all fronts,” not just Chicago’s waterways which are seen as the primary vector.

On Waukesha, Allan leaned on the I need to see the detailed proposal crutch to justify essentially a no comment. This was in spite of the fact that the contentious points of Waukesha’s request are known and have been publicly discussed around the region. He did say the process to review the request is a good one.

 

 

Groundwater in demand

It was only when I turned the discussion to groundwater that I was able to crack Allan’s diplomatic veneer.

The region’s groundwater is estimated to be the equivalent of the amount of water in Lake Michigan.   It is under increased demand to support agriculture and now fracking in Michigan.

The demand has increased groundwater’s value, justifying the attention it’s receiving.

Without much of a prompt Allan talked freely about fracking, saying that Michigan has just launched a regulatory review of its impact on groundwater. Fracking can take millions of gallons of water in a short period. High quality streams are thought to be especially vulnerable to the process.

I asked Allan about the effectiveness of Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool which debuted in 2008 with great hype and fanfare. At the time hardly a week passed where I couldn’t find a puff piece promoting the virtues of the untested tool.

Allan’s response was candid beyond what I expected. He didn’t follow the typical talking points about the tool which usually start with “award winning.”

It’s the only time Allan became a bit defensive and he said the tool was designed as a “screening tool” and it “will take more work, a lot more work” for it to be “definitive.”

He acknowledged that it has been inconsistent at times, either over or underestimating the amount of water available for a sustainable withdrawal.

Allan said Michigan’s Water Use Advisory Council is taking a “deep dive” related to water use in general and the effectiveness of the tool in particular. He also recognized that there is no substitute for field data but limited resources prevent the state from doing as much monitoring as is necessary.

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Business roots

Listening to Allan talk to the Muskegon group it’s easy to see he’s not far removed from the business environment.

He presented a lot of facts in a PowerPoint and sprinkled in some cheerleading perhaps meant to win the audience over. And he ends many sentences with a declarative “right,” which sounds like I know you agree with me as if saying it makes it so.  

Back to my original question.

Can a business executive — a systems guy – with a businessman turned politician boss lead Michigan and the region for the betterment of the Great Lakes?

The short and easy answer is yes. The more important question is will they?

It’s great to think strategically and develop systems to deal with problems. Allan will get no argument there from me.

But not every problem needs a systematic approach. Sometimes you know what the right thing to do is and you just have to do it. Knowledge and passion need to trump process.

This region has a long history of analysis and study leading to paralysis. It’s rife with agencies, commissions, councils and initiatives that duplicate work and drive inefficiency. Allan needs only to look at the governors who have both a council and commission to guide their Great Lakes work.

Toss in a fragmented federal bureaucracy  — 16 agencies – that are involved with the Great Lakes and it’s easy for the wheels of progress to slow to a crawl.

And based on recent history, I’m struggling to see the other Great Lakes governors readily jumping on a Snyder/Allan bandwagon to better the Great Lakes.

I suspect they’ll do what’s convenient and easy at the margins but not much more. That’s been their history and one marginally attended meeting – only four of the eight governors showed up for a “Summit – won’t change that.

Opportunity… and conservation over consumption

Jon Allan has a unique opportunity.

He can use lessons learned from business and his systems expertise to drive a groundwater policy for Michigan that has a bias for conservation over consumption. It doesn’t require a lot of analysis to know that is the right thing to do.

That’s if you’re more concerned about preserving a critical natural asset – water — that ensures Michigan’s long-term economic viability.

The right thing incorporates the precautionary principle into decision making. Allan and Snyder could champion it to business and agricultural interests as having Michigan’s long-term economic and conservation interests at heart.

That’ll be a hard sell as both of those sectors are big consumers of water and water is key to growth. That’s a message they may not want to hear, especially farmers, who still have a special status in our society.

If Allan does nothing more than chart a truly sustainable course for Michigan’s groundwater, he will have achieved a significant and lasting result for Michigan.

It’s one that will endure and he could brag about long-after any accomplishment in his business career is a distant memory.