Part 3 – From Steadfastness to Success

By Cam Davis

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

If leading into the Legacy Act victory the region learned that multi-sector and bipartisan support was critical, it learned afterwards that planning—making the unyielding scientific, economic, and strategic case for more holistic Great Lakes restoration with progress milestones—was key. These lessons can yield—and are yielding—results that can continue to benefit the region’s future. 

The region was also understanding that, as a swing region, it had reason to articulate its priorities and push for them to be fulfilled. Just as it had been the case in 2000, and as the nation headed into the 2008 presidential election, the region flexed its muscles again. 

This time, the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition issued a presidential campaign pledge, which the three leading candidates—Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama—eagerly signed. By September 2008, the Obama-Biden team was the only campaign to release a detailed plan for the Great Lakes, including a commitment for a $5 billion trust fund “to jumpstart the restoration work and capture economic, ecological, and community quality of life values.” There’s no doubt that having presidential candidates who represent and understand the region was a stroke of fortune. 

The new administration, with strong guidance from Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, quickly budgeted $475 million for the first year of the new “Great Lakes Restoration Initiative” with bipartisan Congressional support. With a little cart-before-the-horse, the administration published its first coordinated, interagency Action Plan four months after the first money pushed through the federal circuitry. Washington Post observer David Broder commented on February 24, 2010, “in an age of rampant distrust, I can’t think of a better way to show that government can work.” Part of government working meant that GLRI champions like Reps. Oberstar and Steve LaTourette from Ohio passed the torch to new leaders like Reps. David Joyce (LaTourette’s successor in Congress), Marcy Kaptur, Debbie Dingell, and Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Mark Kirk of Illinois. 

The Initiative has since moved faithfully forward, with its stakeholders showing Congress that their districts have benefited. And, in 2021, $200 million additional per year over five years under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law supplemented the GLRI’s funding so that the program now, three action plans later, stands at more than $500 million per year. 

Even with other complementary funding, such as state revolving loan funds, stakeholders and elected officials seem to understand that reversing the effects of more than a century of ecosystem neglect and even outright abuse requires ongoing funding and focus. 

This year could be the most important yet for the Great Lakes in more than a decade or more. Why? And what role do policymakers have? 

  • Reauthorize the GLRI at $500 million per year – With demand to reverse the effects of more than a century of ecosystem neglect continuing to outpace resources, steady-state funding levels are more than justified. Passing the reauthorization bill S.B. 3738 and H.R. 7257 would be a fitting thank you to retiring congressional Task Force co-chair and Great Lakes champion Debbie Stabenow. These bills are winners “for millions of people in the region,” affirmed Laura Rubin, the Coalition’s director. 
  • Ask for a briefing on the next draft GLRI action plan – Every five years, GLRI agencies are charged with putting out an updated action plan to guide priorities for federal investments. GLRI “Action Plan IV” is due out by the end of federal FY24 (covering FY25-29). During my time on the Hill, I gave annual progress presentations. A briefing on upcoming draft action plans is even more important. In the aftershock of record-high lake levels a few years ago, investing in coastal resilience, especially in an era of a rapidly changing climate, and the impacts it has across diverse communities, is vital. 
  • Recognize Congressional leaders who extend a hand to Canada – Task Force co-chairs Marcy Kaptur, David Joyce, Bill Huizinga, Debbie Dingell, and others led efforts last year to urge President Biden to talk to Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau about stronger Canadian federal funding levels. Prime Minister Trudeau announced $420 million over 10 years for a Canadian Great Lakes Freshwater Ecosystem Initiative, proving again that when the two countries work together, 84 percent of North America’s fresh surface water—not to mention the tens of millions of Americans and Canadians who call the Basin home—is a beneficiary. 

The region’s playbook for success—refined 25 years after the idea of the Legacy Act was first discussed at the Summit—works: partnership over partisanship, tenacity, strong planning through forums like the Summit, and multi-sectoral leadership. And the playbook is more important today than it’s ever been.  As Great Lakes Fishery Commission Executive Secretary Marc Gaden says, “neither the U.S. nor Canada, nor the tribes, first nations, states, provinces, or communities, can restore the health of the Great Lakes alone. But together, along with people who speak up and speak out, we stand a good chance.” 

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.