Great Lakes vulnerable as new threats loom

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson

Commentary

Wall Street’s incessant past performance is no guarantee of future results disclaimer has applications to Great Lakes issues too. Here’s what I mean.

The period between 2004 and 2009 were heady days for the Great Lakes and their advocates.

In that short span, President George W. Bush signed off on the concept of federal support for Great Lakes restoration and President Barack Obama started funding it. Bush also signed into law the Great Lakes Compact. That’s the eight-state and two Canadian province deal to prevent diversions of water to regions outside the basin.

Both initiatives were a big deal and remain so. But that was then and things change.

New challenges have emerged and they are no less daunting than restoration and keeping water in the basin.

There’s a move afoot to ship tar sands oil on the Great Lakes and that has people’s attention. It’s a new and potential ecosystem-altering threat. The thick oil-like substance already moves through pipelines and via rail. But those transport modes can’t meet demand. On the water shipping is in the works unless the region can come to its senses and put the brakes on.

It’s mind-numbing to imagine a major spill in the Detroit River which empties into a shallow and fish-laden Lake Erie.

Is an accident likely at some point? Yes.             chicagoview

BP spilled oil into southern Lake Michigan last week. It was relatively small and contained but a spill is a spill and an indicator of the risks.

And while we’re thinking about unthinkable disasters, consider the aging oil pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac adjacent to Mackinac Island, one of the region’s jewels.

Tar sands oil threatens more than our waters.

It produces a byproduct, petroleum coke or more commonly, pet coke. That’s the fine particulate matter that is stored in cities like Detroit and Chicago. It has no business in neighborhoods and fights are ongoing in both cities to get rid of it.

Then we have this Op/Ed in the Detroit News.

Should Michigan turn its water into money?

Forbes magazine columnist Dale Buss expands on an issue that is no longer beneath the radar. That’s using the region’s water abundance as a marketing tool. What’s wrong with that you say?

Nothing, on its face. But that statement means different things to people with different agendas.

In Wisconsin it means recruiting a bottled water operation to a town – Pleasant Prairie – that diverts water from Lake Michigan. In Detroit it could mean privatizing the water system rarely a good idea to generate revenue. These aren’t trifles. They’re indicators of how we see water as a commodity to be marketed and sold.

They could be early steps toward the slippery slope of selling our water to drought-stricken areas. The Great Lakes Compact prohibits that, but Buss reminds us that Washington passed the compact and could also undo it.

As we deal with new threats remember that there is no viable, long-term plan to deal with two of the biggest existing problems Asian carp and algae blooms.

The International Joint Commission recently said that our algae actions are failing. And there’s no political consensus or will in the region about what to do with the Army Corps report on Asian carp.

Back to the compact and Great Lakes restoration.

Like most public policy initiatives, restoration and the compact had to be oversold so they could be sold at all. Reality rarely aligns with the sales pitch, we know that when we’re honest with ourselves.

The restoration initiative is making progress in cleaning up legacy toxic sites but it’s slow and tedious work. Only a couple of the 30 odd sites have been delisted in five years.

Beyond that, the program continues to be a mile wide and an inch deep without a tight focus. It’s a project here and a study there making sure key Congressional members and all areas and constituencies receive money, priorities be damned.That keeps the money coming and is how it works if you follow D.C. logic.

The compact has problems too.

Remember the pitch that the compact would provide ironclad protections? If caveat emptor ever applied to a Great Lakes program the compact is it.

Here’s what I mean:

In a study released in 2013 the Alliance for the Great Lakes said the compact has potential leaks which – left unplugged  could make it vulnerable to legal challenge and may ultimately put Great Lakes water at risk.

Strong words from an organization that usually tries to put a positive slant on its messages.

The Alliance report referred to lack of implementation of key administrative rules now approaching six years after its implementation.

That may sound insignificant but it can make decisions seem arbitrary and arbitrary decisions are vulnerable legally.

The compact’s passage was spearheaded by governors who had a conservation mindset led by Bob Taft of Ohio and Jim Doyle of Wisconsin. But they and their compact-passing colleagues are all out of office.

They’ve been replaced by a class of governors for whom conservation is a nice concept and talking point but not a priority.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder is yet one more business executive who believes his success translates to governing. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants his Department of Natural Resources to have a chamber of commerce mentality.

In Ohio the law to implement key provisions of the compact that Gov. John Kasich signed was essentially written by the chamber of commerce. It was managed through the legislative process by a representative who is a bottled water executive.

Get the picture.

Business and the economy come first with conservation lagging.

What to do?

Great Lakes restoration reminds me of the highly-touted stock that underperforms. There’s too much money available and too many agencies and organizations who want a piece of the federal financial pie to correct its significant flaws.

The compact however is salvageable if the governors will accept it for what it was meant to be, a conservation agreement crafted to last for generations. Then manage it responsibly with a bias for conservation over consumption and economic development.

Beyond implementing the rules that minimize the compact’s legal vulnerability, there’s one thing the governors need to do to protect its integrity.

That’s to give Waukesha’s diversion request the toughest possible review and have the will to turn it down if it doesn’t meet both the letter and spirit of the compact. That would send the strongest possible signal to dry states that the Great Lakes aren’t for sale.

Similar to 2008 the Great Lakes are at a crossroads.

  • Will we choose to peel off the layers of the Rust Belt image by rejecting tar sands oil shipments on the Great Lakes?
  • Will we say no to storage of pet coke in economically challenged neighborhoods? Or let it be OK as long as it’s in Detroit but not Bloomfield Hills? Or in southeast Chicago but not Lake Forest?
  • Do we have the courage to put the brakes on a slow but sure move to make Great Lakes water a marketing tool that inches it closer privatization and becoming a commodity?

The fact that we’re still debating these questions is telling. We should be well past this discussion in 2014 and we’re not.

That’s a problem.

  • sandra bihn

    I fear we are too water rich and do not value our water asset enough to have the political will to protect this critical resource that if taken care of will be the economic driver for generations to come.
    2013 scared me when Carroll Townsship – 2000 water customers – had to stop using the water because of the toxin microcystis and Toledo paid an extra $3 million for treatment of the microcystis. Carroll Township had an alternate source of drinking water – most other Great Lakes water intakes do not have alternate sources of water.
    When I speak I ask the audience how many of you own property – generally almost everyone does. Then I ask how many of you would allow someone to dump the waste from a porta potti on your lawn – an all agree this would not be allowed. Then I share that we allow failing septic systems, sewage overflows, animal manure to drain into the waters that we eventually drink…. And I also share the we treat human waste but do not treat manure from diary, hogs, and poultry. Instead we allow the manure to be placed in lagoons – and spread on the land and much of it washes into our streams. Manure is also applied on frozen ground.
    While spills are certainly a threat to deal with so are the day to day practices we allow to degrade our waters to a point when there is algae with toxins that are now challenging treament in our drinking water intakes…. All we have to do is reduce nutrients from wastewater, agriculture, manure, storm , septic, lawns and other sources and the toxic algae will be reduced and go away…. Voluntary efforts were tried in the Chesapeake for 25 years and did not work – do we really believe that the voluntary reductions will be enough to get rid of the bad algae?? I know of nowhere where voluntary nutrient reductions has worked to get rid of bad algae. How important is the quality of Lake Erie and other Great Lakes waters?? Do we really care…?? Will be just let Lake Erie’s algae get worse and worse??