Gary Wilson's thoughts on Great Lakes issues and occasionally, other things
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Ohio legislator’s vision is based on an outdated model, adds to an already burgeoning bureaucracy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 The model is outdated now.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.
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Chicago-based environmental journalist