Part 1 – From Skepticism to Success

By Cam Davis 

February in Washington, D.C., can contrast markedly with the blowing, snowy winters of the Midwest, especially for those unlucky enough to have their flights to and from the nation’s capital delayed or outright canceled because of the weather. Despite the uncertainties in travel, the Northeast-Midwest Institute stuck to its timetable in hosting its annual Great Lakes Environmental Summit the second month of the year. 

The Summit’s format has remained for decades: some attendees congregate to give and hear the latest updates about federal legislation, appropriations, and grant programs for conservation. These reports took up the bulk of most meetings, after meeting kickoffs by Great Lakes Task Force co-chairs and other leaders. Attendees often included Hill and Institute staffers, agency reps, and a handful of stakeholders from environmental, business, and other sectors. After all the updates were given, those attendees who didn’t have to leave would stick around for a brief open discussion. 

The February 2000 Summit was no different. As the participants wound down in the afternoon, some thinking more about taking off so they could get to the airport to hopefully take flight, vague mention was made that the White House had scrubbed the federal budget to find some $50 million (an impressive $90 million in today’s dollars) to purportedly use for the Great Lakes. Funding, it seemed, could make a difference to an important swing region in a presidential election year. 

Even if the prospects for passing a funding package  were uncertain, the purpose was clear: contaminated sediment cleanups for more than 30 toxic hotspot Areas of Concern listed under the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement remained unaddressed. 

In the room at the time on behalf of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, I volunteered with Cameron Wilson, a staffer with the office of Rep. Vern Ehlers, Republican from the Grand Rapids, Michigan, and co-chair of the Great Lakes congressional Task Force, to flesh out the bill. I suggested a Great Lakes “legacy act” as a double entendre for the bill’s name, reflecting the need to clean up legacy pollutants while leaving a legacy of healthier lakes for future generations. 

As a prospect that still seemed farfetched—getting funding legislation from idea to introduction—most moved on from the Summit without giving it another thought. The Institute’s own Economic Review from March-April 2000, didn’t even mention the glimmer of possibility from the discussion, reflecting the region’s belief that such a measure would not likely get traction in a highly charged, partisan Congress. 

A couple of legislative champions were serious about the effort, however. In addition to Ehlers,  Transportation & Infrastructure Committee (T&I) Ranking Member Rep. Jim Oberstar also jumped into the fray. He, and staffers Ken Kapocis, Ryan Seiger, and others, introduced H.R. 3670 and on March 6, invited others to co-sponsor. Ehlers dropped his bill, H.R. 4283, a month later. 

Over the coming months, Oberstar and Ehlers worked out differences on how to ensure sites could not be re-contaminated, risk analyses, and whether prevailing wages under Davis-Bacon should apply to federal cleanup projects. 

The result was H.R. 1070, the “Great Lakes Legacy Act of 2001,” introduced a year after the 2000 Summit, with the two Congressional champions leading partnership to triumph over partisanship. At a July 11, 2001, hearing on the bill, Ehlers pressed for $50 million per year between federal fiscal years 2003 and 2007 for “qualified projects that involve remedial action, have been identified in a remedial action plan, or will use an innovative approach, technology, or technique for remediation.” Representatives from the Alliance (then the Lake Michigan Federation), Council of Great Lakes Industries, and Sierra Club’s Great Lakes Program, testified in favor of the bill, backed by a statement from the Great Lakes Commission. 

At the subcommittee hearing, some legislators not from the region doubted the federal government could afford the investment, though the economy was in the midst of the greatest expansion in world history. Still, the leaders’ display of multi-sector support surprised legislators who were used to seeing bickering between business and conservation groups. It’s all they needed to give them cover so supporting the bill was seen as a political safe harbor. Within the coming months, a flood of bipartisan support poured in

While the clock ran out for passage in 2001, legislators and advocates didn’t give up. H.R. 1070 became the Great Lakes Legacy Act of 2002, and, after a Senate companion bill with benefits for Lake Champlain passed, was signed into law in November. 

The region—beleaguered over generations by job losses and environmental degradation—learned three vital lessons: when legislators and sectors choose collaboration over competition, they could accomplish great things for waterways that the public depended on, with plenty of credit to go around. They learned that when needs are well defined with plans in place to address them, funding was much more likely. And they learned that hearing “no” to funding could fuel even greater efforts to get to yes with the right diplomacy and determination

They were lessons the region’s leaders were about to put to the test for an even more expansive effort. 

Cam Davis is President Barack Obama’s former “Great Lakes Czar.” He helped write and pass the Great Lakes Legacy Act and, later, coordinate the work of 11 federal departments in establishing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. He is currently an elected commissioner at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and vice president at GEI Consultants. Together with his wife and two children, they also run a small sustainable farm in Michigan.

This is the first of a three-part series on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Read Part 2 here.