Advocate coalition calls on Gov. Whitmer, legislative leaders to engage as time to access federal funds diminishes
The June request by an ad hoc collaboration of groups was relevant, reasonable, straightforward and with a sense of urgency.
Would the state of Michigan enter into an agreement with the U.S. EPA that provides funding to clean up decades-old contaminated sediment sites in the Detroit River. One of the most iconic yet polluted waterways in the Great Lakes region.
The EPA has funded ongoing work but needs a non-federal sponsor to complete the job by President Biden’s 2030 target date. Otherwise, federal money may no longer be available and the opportunity may be lost.
The request for $75 million to be budgeted was sent to elected officials in Michigan including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and key legislative leaders who chair committees that control appropriations, meaning the purse strings.
It came from 64 entities in Michigan in what’s known as a sign on letter. A letter where an organization, usually an environmental non-profit, seeks allies to sign the request in hopes that it will increase its gravitas and the likelihood of a response.
The interesting thing about the signatories of the letter is their diversity, meaning it wasn’t just from a group of non-profit environmentalists, which would have made it easy to compartmentalize and dismiss. It included the Great Lakes Water Authority, University of Michigan, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, the city of Detroit and four other communities who border the river and were willing to step out of their traditional lane.
For context, $75 million is not a lot of money for the state of Michigan. It recently budgeted billions of dollars to subsidize the highly-profitable auto industry’s transition to electric vehicles. And in a process that lacks transparency, in June legislators put $950 million into “no-bid pork projects,” as reported by Bridge Michigan. “Pork,” as in pet projects that get little if any scrutiny such as legislative hearings and public comment sessions.
So, how was the letter received by addressees Gov. Whitmer, state Sen. Sarah Anthony and Rep. Angela Witwer?
With silence. A member of the coalition, speaking on background, told me there was no response, which is baffling.
Common sense and political savvy would dictate some type of reply. If for no other reason than Whitmer, Anthony and Witwer are Democrats. And it wouldn’t take a political policy expert to suspect that many of the folks who signed the letter lean left politically.
Minimally, the politicians could have acknowledged receipt of the letter and promised to give it due consideration. Not reassuring but at least a response.
Or written something formulaic like how important the Great Lakes are and protecting them is a top priority. That’s a favorite Gov. Whitmer tactic, to sprinkle the value of the Great Lakes into speeches without saying anything substantive.
Or better yet, the politicians could have called a few of the folks who signed the letter, they’re not hard to find. Especially the representatives from Detroit and the other cities that signed the letter.
I recently wrote a story about cleanup of the contaminated sites like the Detroit River, one of many on the topic over the years. To do the issue justice, I requested an interview with the top official in the EPA’s Chicago Great Lakes office that oversees the work.
In a 30 minute phone conversation, Chris Korleski answered my questions and explained the work on the Detroit River so far, and the substantial challenges that remain. Sure, he hit often recycled agency talking points, but overall was direct and forthcoming in his responses.
By contrast, my emails to Gov. Whitmer’s office on the Detroit River went unanswered and emails and phone calls to the offices of Sen. Anthony and Rep. Witwer were treated similarly.
In November 2022 after the election where Whitmer easily won a second term and Democrats took control of the legislature, Whitmer said it was time to “step on the accelerator” and address fundamental issues like roads, civil rights, water and more.
The folks who signed the Detroit River letter aren’t Pollyanna's expecting the Michigan Democratic party intelligentsia to cater to them. They are concerned professionals and citizens pointing out an opportunity for Michigan to seize the moment that could be lost without the state’s involvement. An opportunity to lead, like neighboring conservation-focused Minnesota did when faced with a similar situation, as the advocates pointed out in the letter.
Instead, Michigan remains stuck in neutral when it comes to the Detroit River. Detroit, including those Downriver cities. will continue to be associated with the stigma of the Rust Belt era pollutants in the river.
And that’s a detriment to the state of Michigan too.
The U.S. EPA tap dances on tightening regs on farmers, clean water remains at risk
In November 2021, I talked with newly minted EPA Great Lakes region administrator Debra Shore as she began to avail herself to media inquiries for the first time.
Shore, a Chicagoan, was previously an elected commissioner with Greater Chicago’s water reclamation district, think sewage management. She was best known for trying to drive reforms that would make the sleepy agency more accessible to the public. Success? Some, but entrenched bureaucracies are slow to change.
Now on a bigger stage, Shore is responsible for the Great Lakes and its issues and among the biggest and most intractable is Lake Erie, and its notorious algae blooms. The type that caused Toledo to go without drinking water for three days in August 2014.
The algae blooms are fueled by nutrient runoff from farms - a sanitized way of saying agricultural (ag) pollution. Years, decades of study have documented ag as the primary pollution source and the remedy has been to ask farmers to voluntarily use better practices to reduce the runoff. And they’ve been provided financial incentives to do so to the tune of $100M+ from the federal Great Lakes restoration program.
Progress? Some but nowhere near the scale that’s needed. It’s generally accepted that to come near a solution to Lake Erie’s algae bloom problem, increased regulations on farmers will be necessary. But that’s the political third rail. Legislators from both political parties are loath to take on ag and its powerful lobby, the farm bureaus.
So I asked Shore for her position on resolving Lake Erie’s algae bloom problems. She was new with perhaps a new perspective and with the gravitas of her office, could be an agent for change I thought.
Specifically I asked, “Is it time to step up regulatory action to protect Lake Erie?”
Shore tapped danced a bit then got to the essence of her response. “I would like to see us doing more research,” she said. Really, I thought but tempered the urge to utter a knee jerk response like, are you serious.
I know of no credible observer of Lake Erie who thinks more research, beyond staying current on the science, is necessary. And the International Joint Commission, the U.S. and Canada agency that advises the two countries on transboundary water issues said as much.
In significant reports released in 2014 and 2017 to the countries, the IJC called for “more regulatory mechanisms” and “mandatory standards and controls” to stem the ag pollution to Lake Erie.
Fast forward two years from the Debra Shore interview and now comes this headline courtesy of Associated Press.
“The EPA is rejecting calls for tougher regulation of big livestock farms. It’s promising more study.”
Another, more study, really moment..
The essence of the AP report is that the Biden administration denied calls from environmental and community groups to bolster regulation of large livestock farms that release manure into waterways.
They’re known as CAFO’s, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations where hundreds and thousands of animals are confined. It’s a national issue.
EPA, the AP reported, said an advisory group will look at the issue for 12-18 months and make recommendations to the agency. EPA will then start its own review and no timeline for completion was provided.
But big federal agencies are not known for speed.
It’s classic bureaucratic non-action. Profess to need more information, seek out experts to advise you what you should or already do know and kick the decision down the road.
I’ll close with the elephant in the room, politics.
We’re nearing an election year and neither Democrats or Republicans are going to pick a fight with farmers or their powerful lobby, the farm bureaus.
It won’t happen. Especially in the key election Great Lakes states Michigan and Ohio.
In addition to the presidential race, in Michigan there will be an open senate seat as Sen. Debbie Stabenow is retiring. In Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown is running to retain his seat. Both are Democrats and the party holds a razor thin senate majority, so not a time to tackle hard issues like tightening the regulations on farmers.
The result is Lake Erie and other great waterways which politicians of all stripes profess to treasure, will continue to be at risk.
As will drinking water for millions.
Links below to my interview with administrator Shore and the AP story with more on the Biden administration’s decision.
Debra Shore interview
A legacy of lethargy, denial and delay in cleaning up our polluted waterways. "Swim at your own risk."
It’s mid-July, peak summer in the northern hemisphere.
That means outdoor activities galore which include swimming, not only in properly sanitized pools, but lakes and rivers which aren’t sanitized at all and in fact may well be polluted.
I read two articles recently related to water quality and swimming in those waterways. Both with negative or at least potentially negative outcomes.
In London, Financial Times columnist and doting “Mum,” Juliet Riddell, chronicled how a large group of 6th graders became ill after swimming in a river while on a rite of passage camping trip. Some of the chaperoning parents with presumably stronger immune systems became ill too. The word spread from parent to parent followed by internet searches on the water quality of the river. The results revealed that it’s prone to “high levels of E. coli and frequent sewage spills.”
Journalist and parent Riddell started researching the water quality of rivers in general in the U.K. and found that only 14 percent of them are in “good” ecological status and there is no river in England that is free from chemicals. Where there’s smoke there’s fire and Riddell also found that there have been 300,000 discharges to U.K. rivers and they are mostly illegal.
Riddell’s conclusion is that the parents, writ large, “have messed with nature so much that it’s making (the children) ill,” and the children will be left with cleaning up the ecological mess when they reach adulthood.
Riddell closed her vignette saying that the campsite managers have now posted cautionary “swim at your own risk" signs. Too little, too late for the 6th graders who became sick.
Then comes the July 4th long weekend where people flock to Chicago’s beaches that stretch from the south side to the northern suburbs like Evanston. And the “weekend” was particularly long this year with the 4th being on a Tuesday.
But the party was spoiled when a rain deluge hit the city on Sunday, July 2nd. Depending on where you live, you received 3 to 10 inches of rain on that Sunday. For perspective, Chicago’s average July rainfall for the whole month of July is 3 inches.
Greater Chicago’s sewage systems were overloaded and the state agency that manages them was forced to open the gates to Lake Michigan. Which meant that over one billion gallons of sewage, in various forms to be polite, was released to the lake that supplies drinking water to millions and is the source of water recreation for the teeming July 4th celebrators who hit the beaches.
The result is that while many of the beaches were technically open, “swimming advisories” were posted. As with the U.K. the risk was exposure to E. coli which can bring on nausea and worse that children are especially vulnerable to.
A quick internet search revealed beach advisories or closings at Presque Isle and Maumee Bay state parks on Lake Erie and in June for Belle Isle in the Detroit River. Authorities reported that swimmers basically ignored the warnings at Belle Isle.
Side note, the Detroit River still contains 3.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment left from the peak industrial era of the 1950’s. Hardly a welcoming statistic for those who want to wade in the water or eat the fish.
The U.K. polluted river story and the swimming advisories for Chicago, Detroit and Lake Erie beaches come on the heels of me reading noted water scientist Peter Gleick’s new book, The Three Ages of Water: Prehistoric Past, Imperiled Present, and a Hope for the Future.
A significant portion of the book is devoted to our development over centuries of sanitary water systems that prevent widespread disease. Gleick attributes our success in the U.S. to “the swift acceleration of technological innovation at the beginning of the twentieth century.” That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the sanitary innovations developed in countries like the U.S. and the U.K., for the purposes of this commentary, aren’t widespread in developing countries.
And we in the “richer countries”, Gleick writes, have failed “to adequately operate and maintain existing drinking water infrastructure or upgrade and improve it.”
We turn on the tap and clean drinking water flows from it. We flush the toilet and, poof, our waste disappears to some place that we don’t know or care much about. It’s out of sight, out of mind syndrome. If we can’t see it doesn’t exist and isn’t a threat, until it is when the waste ends up in the lake where we’d like to swim.
Growing up in a Detroit suburb decades ago my dad often fished in the Detroit River. But on the Canadian side because as he told me, the U.S. side was too polluted. It still is. And Lake Erie’s beaches were our go to beaches as they were only a 20 minute drive away. Until my parents determined they were too polluted.
To Gleick’s point, we the “richer” folks have been backsliding when it comes to protecting our precious wealth of water.
And paraphrasing columnist Riddel in the U.K., we are again leaving the job of cleaning up our polluted waterways to our children.
Notable points not included in the original commentary that allowed it to focus on the larger issue.
After the Great Lakes Compact became a federal law, Waukesha, Wisconsin’s request to tap the Great Lakes was the first major test of the agreement.
The process took approximately six years, the request received scrutiny from the eight Great Lake states at the highest levels and two Canadian provinces contributed in an advisory role.
The request was modified along the way when Michigan, represented by Gov. Rick Snyder’s Office of the Great Lakes Director Jon Allan, insisted that Waukesha drop its request to provide water to towns outside its service area. Michigan lead negotiator Grant Trigger told me at the time that the request by Waukesha was a deal breaker. Waukesha acquiesced.
And Waueksha was required to return the amount of water withdrawn to Lake Michigan as treated wastewater, minus an amount for consumptive use.
Chicago’s sale to Joliet received no such scrutiny from the other states, it allows for provision of water to five other communities and Joliet is not required to return water to Lake Michigan.
The net result, shipments of Great Lakes water outside the basin based on the Supreme Court decree v. the Great Lakes Compact are easier to secure, and put the region’s credibility about conservation at risk.
Chicago hints at additional water supply deals; but regional water commissioners warn of the peril of financialization of Lake Michigan. Call for the Great Lakes to be a Public Trust.
In my early days of involvement with Great Lakes issues, I attended regional conferences with a name badge that ID’d me as from Chicago. After a glance at my badge, it was not uncommon for another attendee to ask, so, is Chicago still tapping Lake Michigan for a billion gallons of water each day?
The inquiry came with a tinge of sarcasm as the person asking already knew the answer. I’d respond, well yes without explaining or nod and change the subject.
The issue of course is that much of greater Chicago is not in the Great Lakes basin and would not be allowed to take from Lake Michigan if not for a decades ago Supreme Court decision in its favor. That decision allows Chicago to draw from the lake and even send water to the suburbs as long as overall withdrawals do not exceed established limits over time.
And the Chicago diversion issue, as it’s known, is more relevant today as increased consumption, declining aquifers, contaminated wells and climate change put pressure on communities to find water. Toss in our never-ending quest for growth and it’s a fast approaching problem.
Last month, Chicago and the city of Joliet, Illinois announced a deal whereby Chicago would supply water to the town via a pipeline. Joliet, population 150,000, is 50 miles southwest of Chicago and in the Mississippi River basin. The agreement includes five nearby communities in what will be known as the Grand Prairie Water Commission.
The transaction is important for a number of reasons but most notably for the selling and buying of Lake Michigan water. Joliet will be “buying water from Chicago for the next 100 years,” the Joliet News-Herald reported.
Bloomberg News’ Environment and Energy section reported the deal for Chicago to “sell its water elsewhere” is valued at $1 billion and “the city expects more to come.”
In its announcement, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot referred to Lake Michigan as a “precious asset” and Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett said the Joliet deal “puts the water system back into a growth mode.” To sell even more water, I presume.
The language is worth noting. An “asset,” as Lightfoot referred to Lake Michigan, is defined generally as “something that is owned… regarded as having value to meet debts and commitments.” It sounds like Chicago is implying if not expressing that it owns Lake Michigan water and can sell it.
The sale of water to Joliet will generate $30 million annually for Chicago, according to the city’s press release.
The Chicago, Joliet deal didn’t go unnoticed by prominent Traverse City environmental attorney Jim Olson.
The agreement “needs to be carefully examined,” Olson said in an email, for compliance with existing laws governing water allocations like the Great Lakes Compact, the federal Water Resources Development Act, known as WRDA and Public Trust Doctrine principles.
Simply, the Public Trust Doctrine states that natural resources, like water, are held in trust by the state for the people. Translation, they are not owned by any entity, state or city and worth noting, the Great Lakes are a shared resource with Canada.
Olson is the Founder of FLOW, a non-profit Great Lakes law and policy center and is best known for his legal fights in Michigan courts against Nestle Water over the taking of groundwater for bottled water.
Who is entitled to tap the Great Lakes is a complex question governed by the aforementioned laws and legal rulings. It’s not my intent to take a dive into the legal weeds here. That would take a few thousand words that you probably wouldn’t want to read. I’ve included links below to resources for those who want a closer look.
My purpose is to put a spotlight on the increasing talk by responsible parties, like Chicago’s mayor, who refer to water as a commodity, an “asset.” Potentially something to be bought and sold, or traded on a water futures market.
Canada’s Maude Barlow told me that at the recent U.N. Water Conference there is an emerging “deep divide” about who should control water in a world with dwindling supplies. See the Colorado River for a U.S. example.
The divide is between those who see water as a commodity like oil and gas that are traded on open markets, and those who see water “as a public trust and human right that must be a public service,” Barlow said.
Barlow is a veteran water rights advocate and former adviser to the United Nations on water issues.
Traverse City attorney Olson basically wants a timeout. A pause that would allow for Great Lakes governors who have responsibility on diversions and water takings to engage on the issue.
Olson has alerted Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Great Lakes counterparts “to investigate the matter and put Chicago and the state of Illinois on notice to hold off further agreements with Joliet so that the governors can fulfill their duty to analyze the details surrounding the sale, and laws that prohibit export of water outside the Great Lakes basin.”
The city of Chicago did not respond to questions that included whether it would pursue other opportunities to sell Lake Michigan water as a means of generating revenue.
In response to questions, Joliet’s Utilities Director, Allison Swisher, referred to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as the responsible agency for diversions of Lake Michigan water based on the Supreme Court decree.
For a Great Lakes region perspective on the Chicago and Joliet deal, I checked with Pete Johnson, the Deputy Director of the Chicago-based Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors & Premiers.
Johnson is an expert on the provisions in the Great Lakes Compact and has the long view of its complexities as he helped the governors successfully navigate the high profile Waukesha water diversion.
Johnson refrained from taking a position on the Chicago, Joliet agreement, instead pointing to the provision of the Compact that refers to the Supreme Court decree.
He did offer, “to be clear, water isn't being sold. Service, including delivery, is what gets sold.”
We batted that around via email with me essentially responding that to say the deal was not a sale of water was a parse, but Johnson was adamant in his push back.
Joliet’s Allison Swisher did not respond when asked if the city is “purchasing” water from Chicago.
My take is the die has been cast on this one. Joliet will get the water it needs and Chicago will pocket the revenue it desires, hoping it leads to more.
This should be a wake up call for the water intelligentsia of the Great Lakes region, starting in Chicago. For Chicago-based environmental groups like the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Environmental Law and Policy Center that have been advocates for the Great Lakes.
A red flag and a prompt to start asking the hard questions of the governors and other elected officials, like what is the region’s 10, 20… 50 year plan to conserve Lake Michigan and Great Lakes water? How will water be protected from commodification, from being traded on futures markets?
If activist groups need inspiration they only need to look at greater Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District for guidance. In 2021 their former colleague and now water commissioner, Cameron Davis, led a move that prompted the MWRD to formally resolve that commodification and financialization of water leads to neglect of the resource.
Further, MWRD affirmed that the water of the Great Lakes “shall remain in the public trust for the people of the Great Lakes region.”
That's a start.
Great Lakes for Sale - Updated Version, Dave Dempsey
Great Lakes Water Wars, Peter Annin
Great Lakes Compact
Lake Michigan Diversion, Supreme Court Consent Decree
My commentary as the crisis was unfolding.
An event designed to be a positive step for the embattled city of Flint nine years ago eventually led to a health crisis of epic proportions.
The event was the switch of Flint’s water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River. The outcome is well-known and well documented.
Residents complained about brackish, discolored water coming from their taps followed by illness. Debates ensued about whether Flint’s water was safe to drink. The inevitable finger pointing followed with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality blaming the city of Flint.
Then came discovery of high levels of lead in the water. Executives in Michigan and the USEPA were eventually fired for their role in the debacle, lawsuits were filed and are still unresolved. Criminal charges were brought against members then Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration including the governor and many of them are unresolved too.
I could go on but if you’re reading this you likely know the story. If you don’t, an easy Google search for Flint water crisis will take you to a trove of information.
As the crisis began to unfold and became a prominent story in 2015, I was doing a monthly commentary on Great Lakes and water issues for public radio’s WKAR Current State program in Lansing. The program was hosted by Mark Bashore.
Below, four commentaries beginning in January of 2015 before the lead issue was known, at least publicly. I recently went back and listened to them, always risky as I’m inclined to do a story and not look back.
Each segment is 10-12 minutes and part of a broader show with Flint being about 5 minutes. Sometimes Flint is the lead topic and others it follows the lead. I’ve given each segment a short topic for perspective.
Heads up, I’m reporting but also commenting so you’ll hear my opinions.
Here we go.
Flint- Current State January, 2015 Flint Mayor calls for Gov. Snyder involvement
Flint- Current State March, 2015 Trust is lost
Flint- Current State November, 2015 Lawsuits aplenty
Flint Year in Review 2016 Current State Top execs fired and Gov. Snyder’s mea culpa
EV’s are still cars and they come with all the problems of cars, says University of Toronto transit expert, other critical thinkers
The headlines on the nascent hyper-transition to EV’s come at a dizzying rate.
It’s hard to go a day without seeing a story about billion dollar taxpayer subsidies to support EV production. Or a politician talking about setting aspirational climate goals, referring to them with the obligatory “bold” descriptor, to end the manufacture of fossil-fuel powered cars by a date certain in the near future.
EV’s are touted as emission cure-alls, the Toronto transit expert said while advocating that investing in public transit is the better option.
Deep-down, I suspect politicians know that climate change won’t be solved by our continued addiction to cars, but they have to do something as they’ve been doing nothing for twenty years or more.
So off the production lines come electric SUVs replacing the gas-guzzling SUVs that we love to drive, even though it takes many two or three attempts to get them into a parking space. And electric SUVs are heavier than existing ones and will still require road repairs, drive new road construction and retain all the ills of their predecessors.
The result, implied, if not stated, is that EV’s are a panacea. And if we can just get enough EV’s on the roads all will be ok. No sacrifice needed.
There are critical thinkers out there who aren’t following the masses over the EV’s can save us cliff. Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert is one.
In an interview, Kolbert told me last October that the climate deal President Biden negotiated with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin “offers a lot of tax breaks for electric vehicles without addressing the fundamental problem… our car culture, a country built around everyone owning basically a car per adult,” Kolbert said.
New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo was an early critic of the rush to EV’s as a climate solution when he wrote in 2021 that “electric cars are merely a power source, not a panacea.”
“Fixing the problems caused by cars with new and improved cars and expensive new infrastructure just for cars illustrates why we’re in this mess in the first place — an entrenched culture of careless car dependency,” Manjoo said.
That Biden, Manchin deal is the Inflation Reduction Act, so called because it may not have become law if its title reflected that it was climate change legislation. The shorthand is the IRA and you can hear cabinet officials and its enlightened supporters referring to it repeatedly, like it's something from Chairman’s Mao’s Little Red Book.
To be sure, elected officials are not just focused on EV’s to combat climate change. Michigan, for example, wants to resurrect an aged and shuttered nuclear power plant that rests on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office called the plant a “critical energy source” in calling for the re-start.
There’s a certain irony in play here.
Whitmer ordered the aged Line 5 oil pipeline that traverses the Straits of Mackinac to be shut down as it is a threat to the Great Lakes in case of a rupture. But she apparently sees no such threat from the aged nuke plant on Lake Michigan’s shore.
With the gravitas of the U.S. government and the billions of taxpayer dollars going to jump start EV’s as the primary climate remedy, the die has been cast, there’s no turning back.
But as the Toronto transit expert referenced, “cure-alls cure nothing.”
The Great Lakes region rightly wants to keep its water in the region, no matter the dire straits the American west finds itself in. But we may want to tidy up our own conservation house too.
An article last week in USA Today set off a minor tizzy in my social media account. It touched on shipping Great Lakes water westward to help California and Arizona, et al, deal with their looming water shortages..
Diverting water west, or anywhere, is generally considered like touching the third rail in the Great Lakes region, you don’t do that.
It was a quick hit piece, it’s USA Today, so no depth or context. Therefore, my comments will be similarly brief.
The essence of the article was the Great Lakes, the Pacific Ocean (desalination) or harvesting icebergs could be a solution for California and Arizona’s water problems. The author then listed how the diversions could work and why it probably wouldn’t, fair enough.
It’s the type of article that has appeared a number of times previously and will be reconstituted again, and probably again. I gave it a glance and moved on.
Then came social media comments and the reactions from some Great Lakes defender types. No way will it happen, one post said, because if there’s one thing that brings people together in the region, it’s protecting the Great Lakes. Especially from the greedy, water-gulping western states who have a bad reputation on water conservation.
What’s ours is ours and we have a document, the Great Lakes Compact to prove it, was the message on social media. The compact is the eight state agreement codified into federal law in 2008 by President George W. Bush’s signature. Canada has a matching agreement
But let’s beware of regional sanctimony. The let he/she who is without sin cast the first stone mantra applies. Great Lakes defenders are aghast at water diversion attempts, except when they’re not.
Some background is relevant.
The architects of the compact - the eight states and two Canadian provinces - and their supporters felt the need to get something codified into law around 2002. It didn’t have to be perfect and they realized it had to be approved by eight states, so there would be compromises. And there were.
The consensus thinking was that if it didn’t allow for an out of basin diversion for Waukesha, Wisconsin, Wisconsin would reject the compact. So the authors concocted a straddling county provision. Meaning, if a city that wanted a diversion was in a county that straddled the basin divide, it would be eligible to tap a Great Lake.
Plus, included was a greenlight to divert water if in a container less than 5.7 gallons, essentially bottled water. It made no sense but again, a concession to business interests designed to secure approval.
The greater good theory in play on both, I guess. Accept a couple of bitter pills for the greater good of securing the Great Lakes Compact.
When challenged about the necessity of the straddling county and bottled water exceptions, compact advocates acknowledged them but said they could be addressed later. But we know how that goes, later usually never comes, and it hasn’t.
But what about the notorious Chicago diversion where Chicago takes about 2 billion gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan? If you look at a map, very little of Chicago is in the Great Lakes basin. Surely crafting of the compact, a document for the ages, will want to address that glaring drain on the lakes.
Nope. That diversion was approved by a Supreme Court decree and to go anywhere near it would have guaranteed years of litigation with uncertain outcomes. The Chicago diversion was hands off.
So, before getting all sanctimonious when the drought-stricken American West floats a plan to tap the Great Lakes, we ought to make sure our own conservation house is in order.
Because it’s not.
Links below to resources if you want to take a closer look at the Great Lakes Compact.
Great Lakes for Sale - Updated Edition, Dave Dempsey
The Great Lakes Water Wars, Peter Annin.
While Michigan prepares to dole out big bucks to profitable corporate entities, basic services like reliable electricity and water affordability are low on the priority list, if they're on it at all.
The sorta mission statement of this site focuses on Great Lakes and related issues, plus "other things." Today, a few comments on those other things. Specifically, Michigan and its subsidies for profitable businesses, its infrastructure and the role of government.
In the past month, with a seemingly unlimited trove of cash on hand, the state has proposed doling out billions of dollars to business interests, specifically General Motors and Ford among them.
The purpose? To jump start electric vehicle production in the state. To keep and increase jobs in Michigan. A marginally worthy venture since these companies are profitable and could fund or finance the EV ventures themselves. And an important point, the EV's taxpayer dollars are boosting production of cost in the $50,000 to $100,000 range.
So a wide swath of the public will be shut out of the market based on cost. But that's the market today, pay up or GM and Ford will take their business to a state that will pony up the mega-millions of dollars in start-up money. Capitalism has never pretended to be fair.
While Michigan's largesse toward corporations plays out, the state and its biggest city, Detroit, are experiencing yet another round of power outages. This isn't the summer storm that blows through type of outage that lasts for a few hours or overnight. It's days long and they've been occurring for years. And they're dangerous especially in the summer heat wave season when the most vulnerable aren't able to cool their homes.
Put this on top of the decrepit roads in Michigan that have no funding solution, and a reasonable person might ask, what if we invested the corporate subsidy money in fixing the grid including investing in solar and really fixing the damn roads this time?
Which takes me to the roles of government, writ large. What the heck is the government supposed to do with all that taxpayer money it takes in?
Channeling my many decades ago classes on civics and governance, plus an internet search on the role of government, I came up with the following. Michigan, in this case, should provide leadership, maintain order, provide economic assistance and public services. Yeah, probably a few more but they're the core, the essentials.
The easy ones first -- leadership. That'd be the governor, legislature and a few other entities, check. Maintain order -- state, county and municipal police departments plus the National Guard if necessary, check. Economic assistance -- unemployment benefits and welfare assistance for the needy are examples, check.
Finally, provide public services. The most every day visible are water and sewage services. Clean, safe drinking water plus sanitary and proper disposal of our waste.
This is where Michigan should take a broad view of its role. A view that if any business entity should be subsidized, why not the power companies, even with all their faults and their reliability difficulties. If the state is going to prop up a business, why not one that benefits everyone and provides a public health benefit, not just the few that can afford a $70,000 SUV.
And because I mentioned water as a public service of the government, why not jump start a statewide drinking water affordability plan at the full $100 million amount that experts say is needed. Not the paltry $25 million that is in the governor's budget. Think about the disparity, $25 million for water affordability v. the multiple $100's of millions for auto companies like GM who had a $9.9 billion profit in 2022.
I'm not naive, I get it. There may be times for the government to bail out an industry, like it did with auto under the administration of President Barack Obama in the great recession. It saved the industry and the jobs and families from extreme hardship. It made sense, unlike today's spending spree on corporate support.
Maybe it's time for Michigan's executive and legislative leadership to take a refresher course on the role of government. They seem to have lost their way.
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.
Chicago-based environmental journalist