State of the State address focused on tax cuts and economic development; no mention of long standing water inequities for communities like Detroit, Flint, Benton Harbor and more.
Sometimes what’s not said in a political speech is as important as what’s said. That was the case recently with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in her annual State of the State speech.
Talking points in a high-profile speech reflect priorities and Whitmer talked about lowering taxes and providing tax credits. A plan to bring manufacturing to Michigan, some minimal action on gun control, the state paying for universal preschool and more.
As always, the devil is in the details and there could be quibbles or disagreement with Whitmer’s proposals depending on your political affiliation. But in general, there’s a lot to like or minimally be worthy of serious consideration by the legislature.
However, this site focuses on the Great Lakes and water-related environmental issues including justice and equity. And Michigan is a water-wealthy state so as I read the speech, I watched for their mention. Ok, I understand that she wouldn’t lead with them, the reality of politics. But surely they’d be included.
But they weren’t unless I skimmed over them.
That caused me to do a word search for environmental justice, environmental racism, water affordability, equity, Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor.
Also no sale which was curious as a focus on environmental justice and equity were pillars of her 2018 election campaign and supposedly, her first term.
Though the EJ community has said Whitmer’s first term related to EJ issues was lacking. The focus was on processes - like creating the position of an EJ advocate and advisory council - not outcomes that would actually better the lives of people in those communities.
Perhaps only Whitmer and her political advisers know why EJ went from the front to the back burner. But I’ve got a theory based on her administration’s handling of the Benton Harbor drinking water crisis.
Which was Flint redux in spite of the vehement denials that came from Whitmer’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy, the successor to former Gov. Rick Snyder’s much vilified Department of Environmental Quality that botched the Flint crisis.
Following Flint, one water crisis in an environmental justice community was enough for the state, and Whitmer wanted no connection to another. That was the Michigan of the past. Whitmer’s administration did all it could to distance itself from responsibility for Benton Harbor, even though the facts said otherwise.
Facts that caused community and environmental activists to formally request a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervention, as it did in Flint.
Facts that generated a lawsuit against the state not dissimilar from the one where the state of Michigan settled with Flint residents for $600 million.
But publicly talking about environmental justice issues in communities like Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor doesn’t fit with the public image Gov. Whitmer wants to project for the state, or herself.
That of a progressive governor leading the way. Leading by lowering taxes, by protecting the rights of women and positioning Michigan as a leading economic development state.
An image of Michigan as a desirable, progressive state to a national audience, given that Whitmer now has a national profile and potentially national political aspirations according to recent Detroit News reporting.
The reality is that the environmental justice issues facing Detroit, Flint Benton Harbor and other communities require the attention of the governor and legislature.
Especially issues like water shutoffs and affordability where activists have been pleading for a state-wide plan. And if the Lansing political establishment needs a basis for action it can easily be found in a November 2021 report by the University of Michigan’s Graham School.
The report called for prohibition of “water shut offs for economically vulnerable households” and for the state to embrace a role with authority that ensures public health protection, appropriate rates, water quality regulation and more.
There, the University of Michigan has done the research for the state and has provided a blueprint for action.
Michigan’s government is controlled by progressive Democrats, has a wealth of water and is flush with cash. Protecting the vulnerable on water equity issues should be a slam dunk but it’s not a priority.
But there’s still time to make it one.
Bureaucratic Overload: Newly-minted Great Lakes Authority adds to long list of commissions, councils and initiatives
Ohio legislator’s vision is based on an outdated model, adds to an already burgeoning bureaucracy
When I first got involved in Great Lakes issues twenty years ago, a common complaint among advocates was that for environmental protection and restoration, there were too many cooks in the Great Lakes kitchen.
That is, responsibility was diffused over multiple entities plus the state and federal governments. The various states, agencies, councils and commissions could have differing priorities and agendas. In short, no one was in charge. A plan with an overseer was needed.
*As I thought about this post I jotted the entities down off the top of my head and they’re listed below for ease of reference. And I may have missed a few.
But in 2010, that started to change. The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) began funneling money to the region and it was designed to clean up legacy pollutants and provide a host of other benefits. GLRI also had a de facto economic mission. In simple terms, if you cleaned up a toxic hotspot like Muskegon Lake, the area could then support the economy with development and recreational opportunities. GLRI is complicated like most federal programs and needs a significant update but, writ large, it has worked. And the beauty of the program is that it is region-wide.
So now comes Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, (D-OH) with a new Great Lakes region initiative titled the Great Lakes Authority. It was recently signed into law to promote regional economic development, transportation and environmental protection.
But here’s where I’m confused. Kaptur wants her Great Lakes Authority, which will be two years in the making, to be modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), according to Toledo Blade reporting.
The TVA was the depression era program in the 1930’s championed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was designed to provide basic services - running water and electricity - to rural areas in the expansive region where people lived on poverty level incomes. And it was successful. A total of 54 dams were built and the TVA was seen as a model of what was possible, 90 years ago. The model is outdated now.
But the Great Lakes region is not the rural, impoverished Tennessee Valley of the 1930’s.
It is and has been economically developed. Its gross domestic product is $6 trillion which, if a country, would make it the 3rd largest economy in the world, according to the Council of the Great Lakes Region. That talking point is regularly touted by Great Lakes advocates when pitching the importance of the region to the U.S. and Canada.
That federal Great Lakes restoration program has invested approaching $5 billion in the region since 2010 with more to come. And in recent federal budgets, the region has received $1 billion plus for a new Soo Lock plus $325 million is in the works for a new icebreaker. Not bad.
And Great Lakes states are flush with cash, Michigan for example, has nearly a $9 billion budget surplus so it’s hard to cry poor to taxpayers. A goal of the Great Lakes Water Authority would be to secure more federal funding.
And states like Michigan, Ohio and Illinois are actively engaged in competing for, and sometimes winning, private investment in emerging electric vehicle expansion. Pretty good for a region in the midst of shaking that long-eschewed Rust Belt moniker.
I’ve followed Rep. Kaptur’s Great Lakes work as her district borders Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland. She’s a D.C. political veteran who is dedicated to protecting the lake and promoting economic development.
But if anything, the region needs less bureaucracy, not more. And Kaptur’s Great Lakes Authority adds to the bureaucratic overload.
Let’s give Kaptur an “A” for effort and thank her for caring, then let the Great Lakes Authority fade away, if it’s not too late.
*The International Joint Commission (U.S. & Canada) Council of the Great Lakes Region (U.S. & Canada), Great Lakes Cities Initiative, Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the Lake Carriers Association and the U.S. EPA’s GLRI.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author offers hope, skepticism and a big dose of reality
I always try to have something to read when I travel and the Thanksgiving long weekend was no exception, even as our primary mission was to visit friends and family in Ann Arbor, Chelsea and Downriver Detroit.
Absent a book, I bought the most recent New Yorker magazine that featured a climate theme containing articles from notable writers on the climate change conundrum. My primary motivation was to read a long piece by science writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, Elizabeth Kolbert, titled, A Vast Experiment: The Climate Crisis A to Z.
It’s 26 short takes on different aspects of climate change, writ large.
Disclosure: I recently interviewed Kolbert for Great Lakes Now and wrote a review of her most recent book, Under a White Sky, for the Society of Environmental Journalists.
The article is profound and I found myself uncharacteristically underlining key points as if I were a student preparing for an exam, and I was never good at that as a student.
Following, quotes and observations worth noting offered with hope that they will prompt you to go online or to your local bookstore and grab a copy.
“Blah, blah, blah” and more
In the “B” segment, (remember, the article is the climate crisis A-Z), renowned activist Greta Thurnberg talks about the pervasive “blah, blah, blah” rhetoric associated with climate change. She disses phrases like Build Back Better, Green economy, Net Zero and Climate neutral. “This is all we hear from our so-called leaders -- words that sound great but so far have led to no action,” Thurnberg said.
Next, a riff on capitalism. “When it comes to global warming, we know that the problem is not just fossil fuels – it is the logic of endless growth that is built into our economic system,” according to economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel. I was excited to see Kolbert include this as I’ve long been saying that our endless fixation on economic growth as a measure of economic health, no matter which political party is in power, is the root of the problem.
On making progress on dealing with climate change, Kolbert writes: “To say that amazing work is being done to combat climate change and to say that almost no progress has been made is not a contradiction; it’s a statement of fact.” There are shreds of hope in the works like battery powered aircraft, Kolbert points out, but they are dwarfed by the scope of the problem and lack of substantive progress on it.
Finally, Kolbert chronicles a trip to the Hoover Dam that when built in 1928 was seen as providing for a “limitless” future, according to a tape played for tourists and as an expression of “humanity’s power to improve on nature,” Kolbert wrote, noting that she felt otherwise about the human-made behemoth.
Kolbert closes A Vast Experiment saying that Climate change can’t be “fixed” or “conquered” as we humans like to believe about such things. There are limits, she says.
My words here are a tease with hope that you’ll take the leap and read Kolbert’s entire New Yorker article. At $8.99, it’s the best seasonal deal you’ll find.
Turning the sky white, climate ghosts, slow water and two veteran authors reflect on long careers
In my day job I interview authors; actually environment and science writers about their latest work. And for the most part, I get to choose the author.
It’s one of the more rewarding aspects of my job. How often have you said after finishing a book, if only I could talk with the author. I get to do that.
It’s 30 minutes of Q&A with some casual chatter as a bonus. I posted my last author interview of the year recently and it dawned on me, it’s been a great group this year. They've written in depth on serious topics and shared their learnings, expertise and candor with a bit of wit and whimsy thrown in. Think books with “darkly comic” and “quietly radical” touches.
Following, a brief commentary on the authors and their work. First, I referred to them as environment writers but they are more. Nancy Langston is a university professor and environmental historian. Canada’s Maude Barlow is internationally known for her social justice work that she blends with water activism, and Erica Gies’ travel-for-work resume would rival that of any of her peers.
Dave Dempsey is a prolific author whose resume includes international policy adviser and environmental activist and Elizabeth Kolbert is a Pulitzer Prize winner who is a university fellow.
In chronological order, my 2022 author interviews.
Nancy Langston’s Climate Ghosts: Migratory Species in the Anthropocene, is not the type of book that I would normally gravitate to. Maybe too abstract for a big-city dweller who has spent minimal time in nature. The title refers to species - in this case woodland caribou, common Loons and lake sturgeon - that are still present but who could be approaching the brink of extinction. Langston says we can still restore them but that will require hard choices. When I turned the last page I thought, how could I have been so hesitant.
Canada’s Maude Barlow has been on the frontlines of environmental and social justice activism for decades and is best-known for serving as the adviser to the President of the United Nations on water issues. In Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism, Barlow chronicles the wins, losses and the people encountered in those decades. In Still Hopeful, Barlow relays the account of how she stumbled into water activism when she learned that water was viewed as yet one more commodity to be traded. A status it maintains today to her chagrin. But she’s not done yet.
If there was a best title award for environment books, Water Always Wins by Erica Gies should take top prize. In it, Gies asks the pithy question, what does water want? “Figuring out what water wants - and accommodating its desires within our human landscapes - is now a crucial survival strategy,” Gies’ publisher wrote in a description of the book. Gies explains the title saying that we humans have created an us versus them mentality in our attempts to control water. But there’s hope, Gies writes, in the nascent Slow Water movement, emerging groups who want to collaborate with water, not control it. Gies is cautiously optimistic.
A prolific author, Dave Dempsey is best known for books about the big policy issues that the Great Lakes and environs face. In Half Wild: People, Dogs and Environmental Policy, Dempsey takes a U-turn to focus on his 40 year career as an environmentalist, writ large, with an emphasis on the “overlapping planes between humans and the nonhuman world…” My favorite anecdote from the book describes a meeting early in his career that involved a legendary sportsman who described him as a “greenie” and environmental elitist. Thankfully, bourbon was involved and there was a happy ending, sort of. Not all authors can successfully navigate a switch from explaining environmental policy to explaining his career dealing with it. Dempsey does.
Pulitzer Prize winner (The Sixth Extinction) Elizabeth Kolbert strikes again with Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. In it, Kolbert uses human’s reversal of the Chicago River to send its waste elsewhere, then 100 years later the electrification of part of the river to illustrate the perils derived from our “control of the control of nature.” Fast forward to the effects of climate change staring us in the face and now comes a scheme to shoot particles into the sky to partially block the Sun and slow the rise of temperatures. Just one thing, the sky will be white, not blue, thus the title. What else could go wrong? It’s hard to miss when you read Kolbert and she’s spot on with Under a White Sky.
Props to the authors, good work all around. And to the folks at Great Lakes Now for the opportunity to bring them to the region and beyond.
Past presidents have made big EJ pledges only to see their efforts fade. Now comes the Biden administration with a splashy new initiative.
As announcements go, they don’t get much bigger or more important than one last week from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“EPA Launches New National Office Dedicated to Advancing Environmental Justice and Civil Rights,” read the press release headline.
In it, Administrator Michael Regan talked about the commitment he and President Joe Biden have made to right the wrongs that have historically impacted communities of color; think Flint and Benton Harbor drinking water crises and Detroit's air quality in the Great Lakes region.
“With the launch of a new national program office, we are embedding environmental justice and civil rights into the DNA of EPA and ensuring that people who’ve struggled to have their concerns addressed see action to solve the problems they’ve been facing for generations,” Regan said.
At the nuts and bolts level, the new EJ office will be elevated to the status of the air and water programs, the traditional pillars of EPA’s work. There will be a $60 billion dollar investment in EJ and “more than 200 policy actions to move the president’s ambitious environmental justice and civil rights agenda forward,” according to the press release.
The new office will be the successor to three existing offices including environmental justice and civil rights compliance.
Heady stuff and good news, right? Sure, but some background is relevant.
This isn’t the first time a presidential administration put a spotlight on environmental justice. Sympathetic Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama also made EJ pledges.
In 2011 Obama announced a plan to “take a big step forward on environmental justice.” The plan would help federal agencies “integrate environmental justice into the programs they run, the policies they make and the activities they engage in,” according to the announcement on the White House website.
To codify his emphasis on EJ, President Obama brought federal agency executives together to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that committed each agency to development of environmental justice strategies, which Obama said was a “top priority” for his administration.
Before Obama in 1994, President Clinton issued an executive order that directed federal agencies to “develop a strategy for implementing environmental justice” and promote nondiscrimination in federal programs that affect human health and the environment.”
Presumably, if either the Clinton or Obama plans had been successful or even advanced the cause, there would be no need for another big splash environmental justice announcement from the Biden EPA.
So now the task falls to Michael Regan, the seemingly affable former top environmental executive from North Carolina who was tabbed for the top EPA job by President Biden.
Can Regan make good on EJ pledges where his predecessors failed? Will he avoid the entrenched bureaucratic tendencies of big federal agencies that focus on process? Or will he defy the odds and fix his attention on delivering positive outcomes, results that actually improve the lives of people in EJ communities?
Regan inherited an EPA that was at best deprioritized and ignored by the Trump administration.
And remember it was the Obama EPA under Gina McCarthy that botched its oversight responsibility that could have prevented or lessened the impact of the Flint water crisis. Years later, there is still a citizen lawsuit against the EPA pending in federal court over the agency’s handling of Flint.
Then came Benton Harbor’s Flint-like water crisis last year where activists had to petition the EPA to intervene as it did in Flint. Similar to Flint, the EPA Inspector General recently announced it is examining the agency’s role in Benton Harbor. That was on Regan’s watch.
The new Biden, Regan EJ initiative has the advantage of a lot of money to distribute and doling out big chunks of money makes for big headlines that imply progress. But federal money can’t cure all ills and is easily squandered.
The real test for Regan will be to change the culture of the EPA to one that aggressively enforces existing laws. And lobbies Congress for new ones where needed. To eliminate a check the box mentality where agency staff can do everything by the book and still not generate a positive outcome for EJ communities.
So let’s give Michael Regan a clean slate to start. Let’s hope he can generate positive EJ outcomes where his predecessors came up short.
Then hold him accountable to his pledge to make life better in environmental justice communities so a future president doesn’t have to announce a big EJ initiative.
As legal cases linger and loom, lessons from the Flint water crisis remain unlearned by Michigan and federal regulators.
The long and winding legal road of the Flint water crisis may have hit a turning point last week.
A federal judge ruled against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a negligence suit brought by Flint citizens.The EPA had sought to bypass the district court and take its defense directly to an appellate court, but Judge Judith Levy wasn’t buying the agency’s plea.
Previously, EPA asked the court to dismiss the citizen negligence case claiming it is immune from private citizen suits, but that request was also rejected. That leaves EPA 0-2 in its legal attempts to deny accountability for the Flint water crisis.
Michigan settled a civil suit brought by Flint residents for $600 million and criminal cases against Michigan officials are still pending, though chances of convictions are starting to dim.
While the state of Michigan was responsible for the crisis, the EPA had direct oversight authority for drinking water and knew about Flint’s issues. But It didn’t use its emergency authority to intervene until well after the crisis had hit a tipping point.
That’s when Susan Hedman, the EPA regional administrator in Chicago with direct oversight responsibility, resigned under pressure. Hedman had told the Detroit News that her hands were tied when it came to bringing information to the public and action by EPA was delayed while legal counsel was consulted in order to determine the agency's authority, the News reported.
In 2018 the EPA’s Inspector General released its review of the agency’s handling of Flint and said that “management weaknesses” delayed its response to the Flint crisis.
The IG report called on EPA to “strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the agency’s response to drinking water contamination emergencies.”
How’d that “strengthen oversight” advisory workout?
Not so well in Michigan as evidenced in 2021 in Benton Harbor where citizens and activist groups had been pleading with Michigan’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to sound the alarm about lead levels in drinking water.
Hitting a wall, the groups filed a formal petition with the EPA to intervene, which it eventually did. But it was a soft intervention that smacked of collaboration with EGLE while blaming the under-resourced city of Benton Harbor for deficiencies
And, EPA in a press release basically absolved itself of responsibility saying “EPA’s involvement has been instrumental to driving recent actions to ensure people are safe and healthy.”
Once again, prevention, getting in front of a potential problem, took a back seat to reaction, swooping in like a savior after an issue becomes a crisis as was the case in Flint and Benton Harbor.
And one would think that after all the national attention garnered by the Flint crisis that EPA would have Michigan’s EGLE under a microscope, but no.
The result? In February the EPA Inspector General announced that it launched a review of EPA’s handling of Benton Harbor’s lead issues. It’s Flint redux and lawsuits abound, again.
In January I asked environmental law attorney Nick Schroeck how the state of Michigan could break the cycle of repeating lawsuits based on regulation and oversight of municipal drinking water systems.
Schroeck said the lawsuits are based on regulatory failures and “the best way for the state to avoid future litigation is to have an aggressive EGLE making sure that municipalities are following the law and that people have a safe water supply.”
The key word is “aggressive” and Schroeck’s advice should apply to the EPA too.
The general nature of regulatory agencies like EGLE and EPA is to play it safe and stay within a narrow interpretation of their authority. Absent is any thought of using moral authority that would lead to decisions that are “right and good.”
I’d rather agencies take the heat that may come from breaking a few bureaucratic rules or taking a liberal interpretation of what is allowed if it protects citizens from the harm of lead in drinking water.
But that’s not the prevailing view among regulators and their overseers who think that strict adherence to regulatory protocol is necessary.
Meanwhile, the lawsuits pile up and the chances of harm to citizens remains.
A blind eye to health risks associated with Forever Chemicals?
A recent Chicago Tribune investigation reported that greater Chicago’s water and sewage agency has shipped sewage sludge that contained the Forever Chemical PFAS to area farms to be spread on fields.
The practice went on for a decade and the Tribune report said it was widely encouraged including by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
PFAS is a known, significant risk to human health. The sludge was marketed as biosolids by the agency, officially the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD).
On its website MWRD describes its biosolids program as “exemplary” and said it goes through “an extensive testing regimen to ensure each batch is of the highest quality.”
MWRD is a state agency and its commissioners who oversee its work are elected officials.
The Tribune report was authored by Michael Hawthorne, one of the country's top investigative environmental journalists and can be read here.
The practice described in the report is troubling enough on its face, especially in 2022 when we are supposedly in a more enlightened and transparent era.
But equally concerning is MWRD”s official response to the Tribune report as posted on its website.
MWRD released a lawerly statement saying its biosolids program follows all the applicable rules and regulations. Ok, a predictable response and it may be technically true.
But what followed in MWRD’s response is cause for concern.
“With regards to human health concerns, the U.S. EPA is currently doing a risk assessment on PFAS substances. The risk assessment is expected to be completed by 2024,” MWRD said in the release.
It’s as if MWRD knew nothing about PFAS’ health risks, in spite of the fact it has received widespread coverage for years. Plus, it’s the agency’s job to know.
The statement made no mention that the EPA website says “exposure to PFAS may be harmful to human health” and lists cancer, diminished capacity of the immune system and developmental delays in children among a list of the risks associated with PFAS exposure.
It is hard to believe that a state agency with publicly elected board members could be so blind to a human health issue like Forever Chemicals.
I contacted Cameron Davis, a commissioner on the MWRD Board of Directors. Disclosure, I’ve known Davis for approaching 20 years.
He has been a prominent environmental advocate and executive working on Great Lakes issues including as a senior adviser to the EPA Administrator during the Obama administration.
The Tribune article said Davis had been pressing MWRD staff to take on the PFAS issue.
In an email, I asked Davis if he was onboard with MWRD’s press release on the Tribune article. Specifically, the section of the response where MWRD failed to address the well-known health risks from PFAS exposure.
Davis didn’t comment on the specific health concern question, said he is still working on the issue and referred me to his quotes in the Tribune article as his response.
In the Tribune article Davis pivoted away from any responsibility MWRD may have and said, “Public utilities across the country didn’t create this problem, but they’re forced to deal with it in ways that put the screws to all of us.”
Davis said protecting public health comes first and manufacturers need to be held accountable.
It’s worth mentioning that the EPA’s current top executive in the Great Lakes region, Debra Shore, was a commissioner on the MWRD board from 2006 until 2021. While there, Shore was known to be an advocate for the agency to take more progressive stances on environmental issues.
MWRD’s response to PFAS in biosolids reminds me of the EPA’s early reaction to the Flint water crisis where the agency dawdled, deflected and blamed others while Flint citizens suffered.
In that case, the Great Lakes region administrator who had oversight of Flint’s lead in drinking water issues eventually resigned under pressure.
A follow up investigation by EPA’s Inspector General said “management weaknesses” prolonged the Flint crisis. And six years later there is still a pending federal lawsuit against EPA that was brought by Flint citizens.
The current MWRD board makeup is a diverse mix of relatively young and veteran commissioners. They have a high public profile frequently appearing at community and educational events that are designed to engage the public.
Let’s hope in the confines of the boardroom they have the rigor to make the hard decisions concerning PFAS in biosolids and other human health issues.
MWRD’s full statement on the Chicago Tribune article is here.
Prohibits privatization of water system and makes incremental progress on affordability
In May 2019, newly sworn in Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot wasted no time in providing relief to people facing water shut offs for lack of funds to pay their bills.
Lightfoot, a Democrat, had previously said “when you cut somebody off from water, you’re effectively evicting them and putting them on the street. We will not do that in the city.”
On day one in office, Lightfoot directed the water commissioner to immediately end shut offs and she promised to work toward an affordability plan.
Fast forward to last week and the city council officially strengthened Lighfoot’s shut off directive by codifying it in law. Incremental progress was made on affordability but a comprehensive plan remains a work in progress.
The council also prohibited the city from allowing the system to be privatized, a slippery slope to loss of control and higher rates for something that is fundamental to human health.
Lightfoot’s drinking water action should not be minimized. She accomplished it by securing buy-in from the unwieldy 50 member city council in an era where the council is no longer subservient like it was to powerful former mayors like Richard Daley, the son, and Rahm Emanuel.
I posted Lighfoot’s no shut offs and privatization ban accomplishment on Twitter for the rest of the region to see what is possible when elected officials are willing to take a risk. I had barely hit send when I received a response from Monica Lewis-Patrick in Detroit.
“Congratulations Chicago on being the leadership we wish we had in Detroit,” said Lewis-Patrick, who leads the water-justice activist group We the People of Detroit.
You see, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan hasn't made ending shut offs a priority. Yes, there is a shut off moratorium in place in Detroit based on Covid protocols but it expires later this year.
But that’s like shooting a layup, it’s easy. And it also smacked of benign neglect as in, you have a right to water during this pandemic, but not beyond.
Detroit recently announced an affordability plan but no absolute end to shut offs.
I wanted to be optimistic that Detroit would follow Chicago’s lead without parsing the issue, but that didn’t happen. The Detroit plan reads like it was written by government bureaucrats and lawyers,
Thankfully Lightfoot, who called water shut offs “heartless,” led with doing the right thing and ended them unconditionally.
That didn’t happen in Detroit.
We justifiably fawn over Piping Plovers returning to a Great Lakes beach. But outrage when people are denied drinking water? Not so much.
In case you’ve been in a years-long deep sleep, there’s been a renaissance of interest in the Great Lakes’ signature bird, the Piping Plover.
Piping Plovers were nearly extinct and were placed on the official Endangered Species list in 1986. Once 800 nesting pairs, their numbers dipped to as low as 13 and are now estimated at 65-70 in the Great Lakes region, according to the website Great Lakes Piping Plovers.
Interest in Piping Plovers has been mostly the domain of bird-watchers and not-for-profit environmental groups who used them as an example of what happened when their Great Lakes habitat was degraded as it was for decades.
And until recently, their recovery was used to illustrate how it aligns with the nascent restoration of the Great Lakes from the depths of degradation. That is until a 2019 documentary film, Monty and Rose, chronicled the return of Piping Plovers to Chicago’s Montrose Beach, a bustling urban Lake Michigan setting.
Suddenly all eyes were on the lovebirds.
The urban beach crowd rallied around the birds to protect them from the perils of beachgoers who, to put it politely, can be oblivious to beach habitat as they pursue sun, surf and fun.
The story reached a peak this past Spring when Monty died of natural causes on the beach. A plethora of media coverage followed and a memorial service was held. Hardly standard fare for the passing of a bird on a beach but Monty was no ordinary bird.
The Monty and Rose saga was a Great Lakes feel-good story that transcended age-groups and offered a ray of hope that maybe, we could make the Great Lakes a better place after decades of degradation and neglect.
But the title of this commentary includes water shutoffs, which has no connection to lovable Piping Plovers. It’s about denying access to drinking water to people who can’t afford to pay their bills. And this is happening in the most water-wealthy area of the world.
That’s not lovable, it’s cruel. It’s the opposite of caring for cute birds making an environmental comeback on a big-city beach.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said when she ordered an end to shut offs that when you deny people water, you basically put them on the street.
As much as Monty and Rose deserved our adoration, should we not express equal outrage when government agencies deny basic drinking water to people?
Yes, there are grassroots groups who champion their end in places like Detroit where water shutoffs have been rampant. They also push for affordability programs that will allow access to water for all, no matter their financial status.
But water equity is not top of mind for politicians of either political party or the mainstream environmental groups.
I have heard water rights activists say the Great Lakes intelligentsia - politicians, commissions, agency-types and the NGO’s - thinks more about Invasive (Asian) Carp and bioswales than water shut offs. That was true 10 years ago when I first heard it and it remains true today.
President Joe Biden, who ran on environmental justice, did not include water affordability in his Build Back Better plan in spite of the pleadings of Detroit Democratic Rep. Rashida Tbalb and others.
In 2014, Canadian social justice advocate and international water rights icon Maude Barlow brought the United Nations to Detroit. Barlow wanted the U.N. to observe and document the pain and suffering Detroiters were incurring as a result of water shut offs.
Given the official inertia over ending shut offs and implementing affordability plans, maybe it’s time for another U.N. visit. A visit to chronicle a day, week or month in the life of a family without access to water
I suspect Monty and Rose would approve.
Flush with $600K in federal funding diverted from Great Lakes restoration, Illinois tries to rebrand Invasive (Asian) Carp.
By Gary Wilson
It could have been an Onion headline
From ‘Carp” to ‘Copi’: unpopular fish getting a makeover
The Associated Press headline referred to the recent initiative to rebrand the fish formerly known as the Asian Carp, now Invasive Carp, to the concocted name, Copi.
At least that’s what Illinois, which “market-tested” Copi, will call it in yet another attempt by the state to make carp more palatable to the fish-consuming public. A few years ago the name “Silverfin” was floated but no takers.
Michigan officials aren’t impressed though and will still call the Invasive Carp by its proper name.
The rebranding is part of the Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources’ effort to reduce the population of Invasive Carp in the Illinois River to keep them away from the Great Lakes.
A permanent solution to keep the carp at bay is modifying the Brandon Road Lock and Dam past which the carp must traverse to get to the Great Lakes. But since 2009, efforts for an infrastructure fix have moved at glacial speed with late 2020’s now the estimated completion date. But that assumes funding is approved and Illinois is willing to incur a significant portion of the cost of the project, neither are a given.
But here's the real head-scratcher. The Copi branding endeavor is being funded with $600,000 in federal Great Lakes restoration money. Restoration, as in cleaning up toxic hot spots that remain from the peak industrial era of the 1950’s and ‘60’s.
Restoration as in restoring wetlands, removing dams to allow for free-flow of rivers and fish species to be in a natural habitat. Or educating grade-schoolers and beyond on the value of the Great Lakes since they will be the custodians of them.
I can think of no reason to spend $600,000 of taxpayer money on a frivolous marketing project, the type of which never gained traction in the past. And apparently others agree as my inbox and Twitter feed received a number of WTF inquiries.
And while we’re discussing names, what’s up with the use of “Invasive Carp?”
I understand the need to drop “Asian.” It’s socially inappropriate as it tags people of Asian descent with a negative they don’t deserve, similar to Asian Flu. We Americans need to stop doing that.
But “invasive” is not fair to the fish. The carp didn’t “invade” from Asia, they were brought here. Once here in the American South they went where the water allowed them to go, as fish do, and migrated up the Mississippi River. But our need to demonize what we don’t like or understand is alive and well.
But some good could come from this $600,000 folly if it is used to take a serious look at the multi-billion dollar Great Lakes restoration program that funded the “Copi” initiative.
How many more Copi-type, pork-barrel projects has it funded? I bet more than a few.
Chicago-based environmental journalist