State of the State Address highlights environmental issues


Gov. Snyder delivering the 2017 State of the State Address. Image: Jeremy Herliczek

By Morgan Linn

Gov. Rick Snyder called on innovators across the globe to rise to the challenge of finding an innovative way to prevent a Great Lakes carp invasion.

His recent State of the State Address also covered a variety of other Michigan environmental issues, including wetland protection, environmental justice and the Soo Locks.

The Great Lakes and the “wonderful” environment in which we live are some of our greatest assets, the governor said. “We need to focus on being cleaner, safer, healthier, more sustainable.”

“When a governor of either party pays special attention to our natural resources and our environment on the State of the State Address level, it’s always a great thing,” said Sen. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, the minority vice chair for the state Senate’s Natural Resources Committee.

Snyder named energy legislation in 2016 as one of the biggest achievements. “It’s going to help protect our environment, it’s going to help us meet our energy needs and it’s going to save Michiganders money,” he said.

The energy package guaranteed that Michigan is getting “an increased percentage of energy from renewable resources, which is good for our environment and so good for our public health,” Warren said.

Snyder also noted tourism and the Pure Michigan campaign as key to showing the country the beauty of Michigan. Lonely Planet named the Upper Peninsula as one of the top destinations for 2017, placing it among the best places in the world, he said.

Snyder also introduced several new environmental initiatives that the state is launching this year.

Invasive carp are one of the biggest threats Michigan faces, he said. “We’ve invested resources, but we need to catalyze all the Great Lakes states on doing more, and our nation.”

The state will launch the Michigan Invasive Carp Challenge, which will involve people from across the world developing innovative ideas to tackle the issue of a potential carp invasion, he said.

Juvenile silver carp, one of the species threatening to invade the Great Lakes. Image: Mirko Barthel

An Asian carp invasion could be devastating to Great Lakes fisheries because the carp would harm native fish by taking their food and habitat.

“The scariest thing about Asian carp is how quickly they could really change the entire ecosystem of the Great Lakes if they were to invade,” Warren said.

Snyder and the Michigan Legislature are providing $1 million to fund the initiative, according to the challenge’s website. Anyone with a creative idea on how to stop invasive carp from entering the Great Lakes can submit a proposal, and cash prizes will be awarded to the top ideas.

“I like the creativity, but it’ll be interesting to see what [Snyder] does with it and how people respond,” Warren said.

The State of the State is a “big night to give a 10,000-foot view of policy ideas and priorities,” she said. The details will become more clear once the governor lays out a budget plan by the first or second week in February.

Wetlands conservation is another issue on the state’s to-do list, the governor said. Michigan has lost around 4 million acres of wetlands over the past few decades.

“We’re going to do something unique this year,” he said. The Department of Natural Resources  will be working with local landowners to create and restore wetlands.

The DNR will be using “mitigation banking.” That  means whenever a development project destroys a wetland, another one would be restored or created to compensate for the damage. That means  no net loss of wetlands.

The effort will encourage development while also protecting the environment, Snyder said.

The Michigan Environmental Council is looking forward to working with Snyder to strengthen the program, said Sean Hammond, the deputy policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

“We want to make sure that they are put forth to a very high quality and that they are more than enough to offset anything that’s lost,” he said.

Wetlands are a critical part of our ecosystem and work as a natural filtration system that keeps our groundwater clean, Warren said.

Wetlands help filter groundwater and provide habitat for animals. Image: James Marvin Phelps

The governor’s plan “makes me a little bit cautious,” she said. “There’s no substitute for a naturally occurring wetland, and if you’re letting people fill in wetlands to do development in one area and trying to create wetlands somewhere else, it doesn’t have the same effect, necessarily.”

“That just something that I would keep a really close eye on over the next year,” she said.

The governor also announced a work group to study environmental justice so  all Michigan residents can have a “clean, safe, healthy environment no matter who they are or where they live.”

“Getting [a task force] up and off the ground is a big step, following everything that happened in Flint,” Hammond said. “Look[ing] at environmental justice statewide is a huge next step in making sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

However, while work groups can be a great way to work together and find a solution, sometimes they can just lead to busy work and no end result, Warren said.

“We [already] know what the problems are that we’re facing,” she said. “I’d be more pleased to see some action steps instead of spending another year or two in a work group.”

The Flint water crisis, which is a lead contamination issue that started in 2014, was a sad chapter in Michigan’s history, Snyder said.

“Last year the people of Flint suffered an unacceptable crisis,” he said. “I made a commitment to the people of Flint to fix it.”

Snyder said he will propose a standard for lead and copper that will be stricter than federal regulations. The rule needs lower acceptable levels, better testing protocols and better public input, he said.

“We’re looking forward to helping the governor push through the most stringent lead and copper rule in the country,” Hammond said. “We want to see this rule strengthened to better protect Michiganders and to ensure that everyone has access to clean, safe drinking water.”

The state has worked toward making Flint’s water safe again, Snyder said. It has provided $27 million for pipe replacement and replaced 600 so far, but there is room for improvement.

Improving infrastructure is a challenge that needs to be addressed statewide, he said.

“We are at risk in every corner of Michigan for aging infrastructure and we cannot take this for granted,” he said. “Michigan residents deserve safe, reliable, sustainable infrastructure.”

The state needs to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure over the coming decades both from public and private sources, he said. This includes fees, taxes, grants and bonds.

“We need to start now working on this issue, and we need to stay committed to it,” he said.

The governor also discussed the Soo Locks. “We need a second 1,000-foot lock,” he said. “Our entire economy in this country is at risk with having only one lock.”

The Soo Locks. Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A recent U.S. Department of the Treasury study says a second lock would be a huge economic boom, and it should be the top priority regarding working with the national government, Snyder said.

“Increased reliability, fewer outages and less delay” would allow more ships to come through and make lenders more likely to invest in improvements, the report said.

“We would be able to have more control over what’s going in and out there and be able to beef up security at the locks,” Warren said.

It would also have an impact on the environment, she said. Allowing a smaller number of larger ships to come through instead of a higher number of smaller ships would positively impact air quality.

The governor addressing so many different environmental topics in his speech is a good sign, Warren said. It’s a starting point and now the state has to put action and dollars behind it.

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