Post Toledo crisis, a different approach needed for Great Lakes

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It’s September and for the past three years that’s meant Great Lakes Week — the gathering of the region’s environmental groups, commissions and interested citizens.

The purpose: To discuss all things Great Lakes including Asian carp, toxic hotspots, harmful algae, a blue economy and more.

Success is celebrated and emerging issues like the threat from a 60-year-old Enbridge oil pipeline running under the Straits of Mackinac are discussed.

The first two Great Lakes Weeks were in Detroit and Cleveland. Excitement was in the air.

Camaraderie and cheerleading we’re the order of the day and there was a, “Finally, we’re all togetherfeeling. That was followed by last year’s conference in Milwaukee where more substantive discussion emerged.

The gathering this week in Grand Rapids could be called Great Lakes Week light. It’s only the Healing Our Waters environmental coalition that’s meeting.

The governmental prongs of the triumvirate — the Great Lakes Commission and the International Joint Commission have retreated to separate conferences.

Splitting them doesn’t matter.

The “hold hands and sing kumbaya” approach has run its course. The reality is that the long-serving Great Lakes executives in charge — centered in Ann Arbor and Chicago— know each other well and their paths cross frequently. They could order dinner for each other.

Not much can be gained by attending yet one more cookie-cutter conference. With talking points and media releases in hand, attendees go into conference mentality where getting through the three days is the goal.

Then it’s back to home bases and individual agendas. That’s the safe route.

It’s like hiring IBM.

An old management cliché is that no one was ever fired for hiring IBM. That’s no longer true. Times have changed. And the safe tried and true route that once served corporate America also doesn’t serve Great Lakes advocates.

What the Great Lakes intelligentsia needs more than a public conference is a private retreat.

Three days to reflect, discuss, debate and resolve. No talking points in hand and pre-packaged press releases at the ready — simply honest and candid discussion because things have changed.

Strategy and tactics that brought success like the Great Lakes Compact and the restoration initiative are not working on current threats.

The region has failed when it comes to recent big issues.

In a high-profile, well-coordinated campaign, Great Lakes leaders went big to fight the advance of Asian carp.

They said Asian carp entering the Great Lakes would alter the eco-system, devastate the $7 billion fishery and harm the multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

They created the ultimate bête-noir, an ecological and economic disaster.

The answer: a multi-billion dollar, multi-year project to separate the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River, the source of the voracious carp. Nothing short would do the job, Great Lakes executives oft-repeated.

No sale

The Obama administration — the best friend the Great Lakes have ever had — isn’t buying the pitch.

It gave the region the “carp Czar” it asked for, but has hung its Asian carp hat on the electrical barriers in the Chicago waterways. The Army Corps of Engineers — they’d have to deconstruct the Chicago waterways and manage the separation project — wants no part of separation.

Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled against Michigan and other states as they’ve tried to get the feds to change course.

Great Lakes region members of congress — Illinois and Indiana excepted — have talked tough and published numerous letters bashing the Army Corps, but have done nothing more than talk.

Recent efforts have focused on a few small-bore projects, but the ultimate solution — physical separation — is on life-support, at best.

Perhaps Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder summed it best. Snyder told me in May that the region lacks “common ground” on the carp issue and there isn’t the needed “atmosphere of crisis.”

Toledo, it can happen here

Then there’s the Toledo water crisis.

When Toledo is mentioned in the context of water, images of 500,000 people without water for three days will forever come to mind.

National and international media descended on the water-wealthy town during and after the crisis to ask how this could happen. How could we let water quality decline to the point where it’s not safe to drink? That’s a developing-world problem, not one for the highly-developed upper Midwest, right?

Not anymore.

And what happened to shedding the Rust Belt image and developing a blue economy? The Toledo crisis is the antithesis of what a blue economy represents.


The region’s failure — at the federal, state and local levels — to address a long-known and solvable harmful algae threat was finally revealed and citizens were the losers.

Bureaucracy and politics triumphed at every turn leading up to the Toledo crisis. Half-measures were offered as solutions. They were more about appearances like encouraging farmers — phosphorous in fertilizer is the prime source for algae — to use voluntary best management practices.

Federal dollars have been paid to farmers to implement those practices. That means they’re paid to not pollute.

Let’s not parse.

Phosphorous runoff from agricultural production into rivers and lakes is pollution. It leads to harmful algae blooms that are a health problem. Paying farmers to not pollute drinking water is curious and perverse.

We don’t pay BP to not pollute southern Lake Michigan. We regulate its discharge and fine the company when it doesn’t comply.

Why should we treat farmers differently? Yet, talk of regulating farmers has been a taboo topic. In simplified terms, the argument against regulation is, “Why would we regulate the folks who feed us?”

The region rightly celebrated Great Lakes accomplishments like the Compact and the long overdue cleanup of toxic hotspots. It also needs to acknowledge failures and learn from them — especially from the Toledo crisis.

Continued coddling of the agricultural community and the use of half-measures will only lead to another crisis.

The next official Great Lakes event is the Great Lakes Commission’s annual lobbying day in Washington in March. It’s more of the safe route. No one will be criticized for trying to advance the Great Lakes cause with D.C. politicians. IBM will have been hired.

But why not have that soul-searching retreat in January before going to Washington? Great Lakes leaders should meet out of the spotlight and ask themselves the tough questions:

How did Toledo happen on our watch? Is it time to get tough with the USEPA and state governments and tell them to stop coddling farmers? Is it time to reconsider the collaborate at all costs strategy and take a risk, even if it means alienating allies?

Answers to those questions won’t come by hiring IBM.

3 thoughts on “Post Toledo crisis, a different approach needed for Great Lakes

  1. Remember the movie Jaws? All the towns people met to deal with the shark. I’m Quint in the back of the room. If you want to deal with this algae problem, talk to me. It’s not just the nutrient loading. There’s a stalled conveyor and current disruptions you’ll need to deal with. Yeah and you need a bigger boat.

  2. Excellent commentary. I was nodding my head vigorously as I read it. It’s time for bold action in the Great Lakes region, and time to get to work.

  3. Here are two good reads on the algae crisis that relate to my commentary.

    NRDC’s Ann Alexander
    “Utterly non-surprising EPA Inspector General finding: EPA’s weak half-measures on algae pollution aren’t working”

    Toledo Blade editor David Kushma
    “Heal Lake Erie now or wait for the next crisis”

    Gary Wilson

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