Will shifting political winds impair Great Lakes recovery?

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


The 2016 presidential election is 19 months away and there’s no shortage of politicians who want to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It seems like a rare day when someone doesn’t announce their candidacy.

Like some candidates, the process may seem frivolous now. But this is serious business.

The political tailwind the Great Lakes have had since 2008 will likely shift no matter who wins the presidency in 2016. And remember, even President Barack Obama hasn’t been a Great Lakes panacea.

One of this gaggle of candidates will be president in January of 2017. That causes me to think about what a new administration may mean for the Great Lakes.

You see, in 2007 Cameron Davis told a group of Great Lakes activists gathered in Chicago that “the region’s waterways need a “new standard of care.” One that would “be about proactively, positively restoring the Great Lakes so that this generation leaves it better than the way we found it.”

chicagoviewDavis was president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes at the time. Now he leads the EPA’s Great Lakes restoration plan after Obama tapped him for the job in 2009.

His “new standard of care” became the mantra as the brand spanking new Obama administration started to make good on a campaign pledge to invest billions of dollars in the Great Lakes.

It’s not only presidential elections that matter.

Two governors in 2007 kept Great Lakes water where it belongs – in the Great Lakes basin.

Politicians in arid regions were talking about tankers and pipelines transporting water from Lake Superior to spray on farm fields and golf courses.

But Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft were having none of that.

They spearheaded passage of the Great Lakes Compact that legally — we hope, it hasn’t been tested yet — closed the door to water exports and sent a message outside the region: Live within your water means because the Great Lakes are not an option.

The nascent start to restore the Great Lakes by Obama and the passage of the Great Lakes Compact were big deals. They were years in the making and took the proverbial cast of thousands to get done.

Those were heady days for the region when the restoration and conservation stars aligned with the right mix of politicians. Lightning in a bottle had been caught.

But things change.

Obama kept his campaign promise of billions of dollars for the Great Lakes. But he has stonewalled activists who wanted him to support physical separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River to keep Asian carp at bay. And his budgets have included cuts for clean water infrastructure.

And while Great Lakes champions like Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow bash the Army Corps incessantly about Asian carp, they lack a passable carp plan and have to rely on empty rhetoric.

What about the governors?

A sea change has occurred since 2008. None of those forward-looking governors who signed the Compact are now in office.

And the current class seems more interested in running for president and positioning themselves for their next job than paying attention to the Great Lakes.

They’ve dawdled on putting teeth into the rules of the Great Lakes Compact, diluting its effectiveness.

And they’ve been tone deaf on water quality. Look to Lake Erie and the Toledo water crisis for proof. Or to Flint where citizens have lost confidence in the ability of government to deliver safe drinking water.

Then there’s Wisconsin where Gov. Scott Walker said he wanted someone with a “Chamber of Commerce” mentality to run the DNR. Wisconsin has always been a leader in environmental stewardship and conservation. Now, in addition to its iconic football team, Green Bay is also known for its algae-fueled dead zone resulting from agricultural pollution.

Governors and state legislators remain the weak link between water-activist mayors and a well-intended but inherently political and bureaucratic federal government when it comes to protecting the region’s waterways.

If the next generation of environmental executives wants to establish their bona fides — like current ones did with restoration and the Compact — they can by reining in agricultural pollution.

It’s the bête noir that’s degrading water quality and the quality of life in the region that has yet to shake its Rust Belt image.

It’s time for Great Lakes activists to form their coalitions and start banging on doors in governors mansions and statehouses. They’ll have to be in it for the long term.

What about Davis’s “new standard of care?” Has it been realized? Will his generation leave the Great Lakes better than it found it?

It’s too early to say. The smart money has known that Great Lakes restoration is an ultra-marathon not a five year sprint.

The big accomplishment has been cleaning up decades old toxic hotspots that dot the region. There’s more to do, but the progress is real.

There also has been a change in the mindset from do we restore and protect the Great Lakes to how do we restore and protect them. The billions of dollars invested to date are a start and need to be maintained.

But the fact that drinking water quality has declined and continues to be threatened means that politicians will have to move beyond showing up at press conferences when Great Lakes money comes back to their district. That’s merely shooting layups.

They’ll have to tackle problems that aren’t resolved with money.

Going forward, delivering on that “new standard of care” will require hard work and the political will to make tough decisions – the latter of which is usually in short supply. And yes, money will be needed too.

That’s why the 2016 election is important as will be 2020 and others long into the future.

Decades and lifetimes of work remain.

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