Part 2 — From Strategy to Success

By Cam Davis 

This Voice from the Great Lakes is Part Two of a three-part series by Cam Davis on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. If you missed Part One, start here.

The region scored a significant victory with the Legacy Act, and not just because of the $50 million boost annually for cleaning up toxic mud at the bottom of working rivers and harbors in the U.S.’s 30-plus “Areas of Concern.” The region also proved to itself that when traditionally adverse stakeholder interests identify common interests, Congressional bipartisanship follows. The ecosystem, economy, and public health benefit. And everyone shares in the credit. If these lessons could net a long-overdue investment for restoring Areas of Concern, could the same lessons be used for an even more expansive investment in Areas of Concern plus habitat recovery, reducing polluted runoff, blocking invasive species, and other significant ecosystem threats?

Yes, but…

If the region wanted to secure more resources for other critical work, it needed to learn additional lessons. For example, leaders would have to learn that more funding doesn’t mean adequate funding. It would have to learn that when more funding is required to repair ecosystem damage, more political will is required to secure that funding. And to achieve adequate funding and political will, social infrastructure—a well-coordinated advocacy voice backed by its own funding—would be critical.

But these lessons weren’t clear at the time, as some weren’t even convinced that more funding was needed once modest funding under the initial Great Lakes Legacy Act had become a reality.

In April 2003, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that an average of only $74.5 million per year had been spent between 1992 and 2001 through 50 federal and state Great Lakes-specific programs. It wasn’t just about the money, either. The GAO also found that “an overarching strategy and a comprehensive plan are needed that clearly articulate goals, objectives, and criteria for measuring success” in Great Lakes restoration.

Advocates and policymakers disagreed over whether that lack of funding was a problem. Internal congressional briefings in 2004 reflected that, “the United States government…has currently estimated that costs of $7.4 billion will be required to address the wastewater infrastructure and sediment improvements necessary to restore beneficial uses in selected Areas of Concern for which detailed information is available.” In other words, the $50 million additional per year under the Legacy Act didn’t come close to addressing the region’s needs, let alone the $10 million per year in USEPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office budget at the time.

Regardless, lawmakers knew that to make the case for even more funding to meet the ecosystem’s needs, it was going to have to address GAO’s other concern that a unified strategy, benchmarks of success, and tighter coordination was going to be needed. “I do not know which is worse, the fact that GAO came to these conclusions or that I have not found anyone that is surprised by them,” U.S. Sen. George Voinovich from Ohio said in a hearing that summer. At the same hearing, he pressed for a single agency to act as “orchestra leader” to ensure programs were harmonized.

In May 2004, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13340, establishing a Great Lakes Interagency Task Force, chaired by USEPA’s administrator, to coordinate the kinds of programs mentioned in the GAO report and to publish a strategy to guide the use of additional funds. Some media outlets expressed concern that the executive order, without a call for additional funding, could be an election year ploy. And as the executive order was being issued, the Wege Foundation and other regional philanthropies funded the establishment of the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition to organize for some of the needed changes. In December 2005, after input from some 1,500 stakeholders, including dozens of Coalition members, the USEPA and other leaders answered GAO’s call, publishing a Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy.

The region’s environmental groups, business coalitions, political leaders, and agencies, did all they had been asked by the White House to do. Still, some legislators poured cold water on the effort, arguing that more data and more prioritization was necessary, and even then, the federal government should have a limited role in interstate waterway restoration (dismissing tribal trust responsibilities and commitments along a binational border).

With this pushback, and no presidential budget proposals to complement the executive order, hopes seemed to dim to transform successes under the Legacy Act that for Area of Concern remediation into a broader effort for habitat, invasive species management, reduced polluted runoff, and more.

The region could have waited and hoped. But hope isn’t a strategy. At the time of the Strategy’s release, I participated in a press conference on Chicago’s Navy Pier with U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, and Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Rahm Emanuel calling out the White House’s lack of proposed funding to match its executive order. The Coalition, Council of Great Lakes Industries, Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, and others commissioned studies that in 2006 demonstrated the scientific justification, and in 2007 the economic imperative, for restoration.

The opposition only seemed to embolden the multi-sector partnership and their champions on the Hill. The region’s tenacity was about to prove itself, drawing on the same lessons learned in passing the Legacy Act. That pluck was also about to meet with a big dose of luck.

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 Voice from the Great Lakes is the second in a three-part series on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Read Part Three here.