Restore the Greatness!
Remarks by G. Tracy Mehan, III
(Former Chair, Michigan Delegation to the Great Lakes Commission), at the Great Lakes Congressional Breakfast, March 15, 2001
Good morning, and thank you, Nat, for the kind introduction. It's gratifying to see such a tremendous turnout by so many friends and colleagues. The Great Lakes Commission has been a proud sponsor of the annual Great Lakes Congressional Breakfast since 1969, some 32 years ago. We've come a long way since that time, when the Great Lakes were declared "dead or dying," and a legacy of abuse and misuse seemed to have had no beginning and no end. Progress has been substantial -- sometimes slow and sometimes painful -- but no less real. It has been a decades-long success story, still in the making. And, that success story is a tribute to all in this room who have dedicated their efforts to the informed use, management and protection of the greatest freshwater ecosystem on the face of the earth.
The job, however, is not yet done. We stand at a pivotal point in this region's history. The "greatness" of this binational resource is at issue. We are perilously close to compromising past progress and foregoing future opportunities. We need to restore our ability to manage this resource for environmental and economic prosperity. We need to Restore the Greatness.
We all know that incremental adjustments to the status quo do an injustice to this world class resource. What then, must we do, as a Great Lakes community, to Restore the Greatness? I offer for your consideration three fundamental, yet critically important steps.
First and foremost, we need a vision. Proverbs 29:18 tells us "Where there is no vision, the people perish." Simply put, if we don't know where we are going, we will never get there. The Marines call this "End State" thinking which empowers everyone to use their own initiative and ingenuity in service of the same goal. In the Great Lakes region, we are blessed with a natural resource that's far more impressive than the lakes themselves: it's the people. Forging a vision that recognizes and respects the needs, views and preferences of a diverse citizenry is the key to mobilizing all constituencies to achieve future success.
Second, we need to think big. We live in a region that is profoundly affected by its natural resources. Their health dictates the health of our economy and the quality of our lives. Careful stewardship of the resource is the basis for countless billion dollar industries ranging from sport fishing to maritime transportation to automobiles. Our investment in the resource must be on the same grand scale. We need to transcend the status quo and give this resource what it needs and deserves, not just incremental adjustment to past practice. In short, a multi-billion dollar resource deserves, over time, a multi-billion dollar investment. Congressman John Dingell, in a guest article for Michigan's State of the Great Lakes annual report of several years ago, noted that clean up costs for Michigan's Rouge River alone could rise toward $2.0 billion. The Rouge is one of 31 U.S. and binational Areas of Concern; 14 of these are in my state of Michigan. Rough estimates for clean up of U.S. and binational Areas of Concern are tallied in the tens of billion of dollars. This is just one example where "thinking big" is in order.
In the Great Lakes region, we are blessed with a natural resource that's far more impressive than the lakes themselves: it's the people.
-- G. Tracy Mehan, III
And third, we must stay focused on our vision: cleaner and healthier lakes that offer us, and future generations, a prosperous economy; a healthy environment; and a high quality of life for our citizens. As stewards of the resource, we all have our respective roles. Everything we do must be focused on that objective, or vision, once it is agreed upon.
As I noted earlier, since 1969 the Great Lakes Congressional Breakfast has been one venue for the member states of the Great Lakes Commission to share their perspectives on the collective stewardship effort. Last year, our members -- which include state legislators, senior agency officials and governors' appointees, adopted a Five Year Strategic Plan that articulated their collective vision:
"a region that offers a prosperous economy, a healthy environment and a high quality of life for all citizens by applying sustainable development principles in the use, management and protection of our water, land and other natural resources."
...and, through that Strategic Plan, we are directing our efforts at seven themes of overriding importance. I offer the following themes for your consideration:
- Cleaning up toxic hot spots: It is essential that the chemical, physical and biological integrity of our waters be restored. The best place to start is by restoring beneficial uses at the 31 U.S. and binational Areas of Concern.
- Shutting the door on invasive species: We all know that invasive species represent a growing and potentially devastating threat to the region's economy and environment. There are now 160 such pests in the Great Lakes system. More are on the way. The problem manifests itself locally, but the solution must be regional, national and international in scope. State, provincial and federal partnerships are essential, and sensitivity to the region's unique needs must be recognized in any new or reauthorized legislation and programs.
- Controlling diffuse, nonpoint source pollution: The quality of our water is largely a function of our land stewardship practices. And, unwise practices that generate diffuse runoff, or nonpoint source pollution, are particularly damaging because they simultaneously degrade the environment and compromise the economic use and value of the resource. We have largely controlled pollution from the discharge pipes. New progress must be made with nonpoint sources.
- Restoring and conserving wetlands and critical coastal habitat: Only a fraction of this region's wetlands and coastal marshes have survived to date, and their restoration and protection is essential. In addition to providing a tremendous recreational value to the region, they provide critical fish and wildlife habitat, prevent shoreline erosion, and help store and cycle nutrients.
- Ensuring the sustainable use of our water resources: It is imperative that the Great Lakes states and provinces, in partnership with the federal governments, develop and implement the programs needed to ensure that our water resources are managed for environmentally sound, sustainable use.
- Strengthening our decision support capability: Policy and management decisions are only as good as the science behind them, and we've witnessed a steady erosion of support for research, data gathering and monitoring over the last 25 years. We need to recognize this trend and think in new and creative ways to deal with it. For example, the Great Lakes Commission has partnered with a number of collaborating federal and regional agencies to develop the concept for a world class co-location facility titled the "Great Lakes Center for Research and Policy."
- Enhancing the commercial and recreational value of our waterways: If we're serious about sustainable use, we need to focus on this region's rich heritage of water-based commercial and recreational activity. Studies show, for example, that waterborne transportation on the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence System is preferable to rail and over the road options from environmental, fuel efficiency and safety standpoints. The upcoming Great Lakes Navigation Study should provide guidance as to future investments.
These seven themes characterize the principal focus of the Great Lakes Commission at this time, and associated with each are ongoing research, policy and consensus-building efforts that involve the many interested parties from this binational region. We offer them to the entire Great Lakes community as a means to make concrete the vision of a Great Lakes Basin restored to greatness.
For each of the last 32 years, we have valued the opportunity to present our perspectives on regional issues and needs at our Great Lakes Congressional Breakfast. Let's make this the beginning of a new era for the Great Lakes. Let's take advantage of the growing interest in a large-scale effort for the Great Lakes that articulates and aggressively pursues collective priorities. As noted on our handout, the Great Lakes Commission supports the development of a large scale, multi-year legislative/appropriations package based on shared goals and objectives. Toward that end, the notion of a "Great Lakes Priorities Summit" has great merit as we work together to ensure the region's environmental and economic prosperity.
If I might cite the Rouge River, once again, as a case study of a regional success story in the making and a possible model for the future, Congressman Dingell and the delegation, generally, were able to garner over $350 million in federal support to date for the Area of Concern. This, in turn, leveraged local dollars, which has resulted in a total expenditure of $550 million! I could cite other examples from around the region.
In sum, let us work together on those fundamental steps I mentioned earlier: a vision, big enough for the task at hand, on which we all stay focused until the job is done.
The Great Lakes Commission, chaired by Nathaniel E. Robinson (Wisconsin), is a nonpartisan, binational compact agency created by state and U.S. federal law and dedicated to promoting a strong economy, healthy environment and high quality of life for the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence region and its residents. The Commission consists of state legislators, agency officials, and governors’ appointees from its eight member states. Associate membership for Ontario and Québec was established through the signing of a "Declaration of Partnership." The Commission maintains a formal Observer program involving U.S. and Canadian federal agencies, tribal authorities, binational agencies and other regional interests. The Commission offices are located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.