Gary Wilson's thoughts on Great Lakes issues and occasionally, other things
Conservation colleagues: Swier was a leader, organizer, water defender and community builder
The world of grassroots water conservation in Michigan lost a pillar of the movement last December with the passing of Terry Swier. Swier is the Mecosta librarian who had the audacity to confront Nestle over its taking of groundwater for bottled water.
In the early 2000’s as Nestle was setting up shop, Swier and a group of Mecosta residents formed Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, teamed up with environmental law attorney Jim Olson, challenged the corporate giant and were victorious against all odds.
The full story of how Swier and her MCWC colleagues prevailed, with the support of Olson who navigated the legal minefield, is chronicled in the 2007 book, Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Groundwater. The book’s authors referred to Swier as the “unlikely activist” as prior to taking on Nestle, Swier said she “wasn’t active in anything.”
They also pointed out that Swier and her grassroots collaborators were essentially going it alone. The big non-profit groups working on water issues didn't (and perhaps still don't) make the connection to the long-term threat that bottled water diversions could be.
I didn’t know Swier and barely paid attention to her scrap with Nestle as it unfolded. But as I ramped up my reporting on Great Lakes water issues, the full impact of the threat and what she accomplished became evident.
Swier’s passing received little mention in the Michigan media and that’s a tragedy too. Today’s water conservationists need to know the story of those who paved the way for their work, because there's still a lot of work to do.
Swier was 77.
The latest MCWC newsletter has a tribute to Swier and attorney Jim Olson posted a remembrance here.
Rust Belt Blues
The Great Lakes region has been known as the "Rust Belt" seemingly forever. President Biden wants that to change.
The Great Lakes and its surrounding states have been on President Biden's mind lately. A few weeks ago he visited Ohio to formally announce the $1 billion in the infrastructure legislation will be dedicated to cleaning up the toxic sediment sites still on a 1987 list. The sites are remnants of the peak manufacturing era. But the president wasn't done.
In the State of the Union speech earlier this week Biden again singled out the Great Lakes region. He wants to ditch the term, "Rust Belt," that has long-been used nationally to describe the region based on its heavy manufacturing - cars and steel - prominence.
Biden wants the region to be known as "the home of significant resurgence in manufacturing." Presumably he was referring to GM's announcement of EV manufacturing in Michigan and Intel's decision to invest in chip making in Ohio. Worth mentioning is that Ford is taking its EV business to Kentucky, where Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell lives, so there's that. But I get it, it's an election year.
All this branding puffery and angst caused me to reflect on past attempts to get rid of the Rust Belt moniker. Former Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, one of the brighter political lights in the region, coined the Fresh Coast. As in East Coast, West Coast and the Fresh Coast because of the abundance of fresh water the Great Lakes hold. Outside of Milwaukee, it didn't catch on and I'm not sure it did in Milwaukee.
And a University of Illinois professor who runs a freshwater lab pitched, the Water Belt. No sale.
But does the region even deserve a branding update now?
I ask in light of the fact most of those toxic sediment sites on that 1987 list still remain 35 years later. They languished for decades for a lack of funding to clean them up. But since 2010, funding wasn't a barrier as approximately $3.5 billion came to the Great Lakes region for restoration. But while some of that money was devoted to toxic site clean up, most of it was absorbed across 15 federal agencies in a mind boggling sea of 6,000 projects laden with bureaucracy.
So how about we don't spike the ball on the 5 yard line as we try to re-brand the region? Let's wait until those sites like the Detroit River, the heart of the Great Lakes, which still has 3.5 million cubic yards of toxic sediment, is clean. With Biden's infusion of $1 billion, that's estimated to be 2030, best case.
And maybe the region doesn't even need a re-brand.
University of Detroit environmental law professor Nick Schroeck calls it, the "Great Lakes Region." It's "evocative," Schroeck told me and I agree. In three simple words it evokes location and what the region aspire to be known for, water.
Let the region be what it is, the Great Lakes region.
How hard was that?
Chicago-based environmental journalist