Archive for March, 2010

Environmental Groups call for Meeting, Transparency

March 19, 2010

Guest blogger Melinda Koslow, NWF Regional Wildlife Adaptation Campaign Manager

Although wonderful places, the cities of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, Muskegon, Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio, are not considered heavy centers of population. These are the cities picked by the International Joint Commission (IJC) as locations for public meetings regarding recommendations from a publicly-funded International Study addressing water losses of Lakes Michigan and Huron.

The recommendations of the study will inform the U.S.-Canadian commission on whether actions are needed to fix what is commonly known as the ‘St Clair River drain’—the ongoing loss of water from Lakes Huron and Michigan resulting from dredging and other human activities. The ‘drain’ discovery—made more than three years ago by independent researchers—has led to the IJC investigation.

Water losses could have huge ramifications for millions of people, communities, businesses and wildlife that depend on the lakes.

Next week people are getting a chance to learn about initial recommendations and display their opinion. The deadline for public comment is April 9, 2010.

Think they could be missing some possible input?

Like that of the largest population center on Lakes Michigan-Huron? There is no meeting location scheduled in the Chicago-Milwaukee-northwest Indiana corridor.

The question as to why this is the case was recently posed to study board spokesman John Nevin. His response? That a meeting in that region was not worthwhile since expected attendance numbers are low. This rationale is difficult to believe. At various meetings hosted last fall by the study board itself, prior to IJC involvement, attendance was so large as to almost be overwhelming.

The IJC is failing to keep things transparent by dismissing such a large population.

Now is the time for us to be involved. It might be a decade before funds, expertise, and time is available to address the issue again. By then the lakes could look significantly different.

Yesterday a number of environmental groups asked the IJC to host a meeting in the Chicago-Milwaukee-northwest Indiana corridor. These groups include the National Wildlife Federation, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Ducks Unlimited, Freshwater Future, and Great Lakes United, among others.

We have yet to hear back.


Great Lakes Restoration Returns, Part 2

March 15, 2010

In last Friday’s post, I mentioned two major Great Lakes restoration developments over the past several weeks, and focused on one — the Administration’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan.

Today I’ll talk about the Congressional side: proposed legislation to lock in and accelerate Great Lakes restoration.

The bill is called the Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection Act of 2010, and it’s a good one. If passed, it will establish a permanent framework around which to build Great Lakes restoration funding, programs, and governance.

Here’s how:

  • The bill contains long-term statutory authorization for substantial levels of Great Lakes restoration funding.  Right now, Great Lakes restoration funding is authorized as it’s appropriated, year-by-year. That can work for the short term, but it’s an ad hoc process that depends on the extraordinary efforts of the Administration and our Congressional champions.  What this bill does is to establish a 5-year authorization of $650 million annually.  Although the funds still will need to be appropriated every year, the long-term authorization sets an expectation for Congress and the Administration of high levels of Great Lakes funding every year. And the level of authorization – the $650 million is higher than last year’s historic $475 million – indicates the right level of commitment to funding the federal component of the $20 billion required for Great Lakes restoration.
  • It  makes one agency – the U.S. EPA – the director of Great Lakes restoration, and makes other agencies accountable to it. The Great Lakes have long lacked an “orchestra leader,” as Senator Voinovich noted in hearings in 2004. Dozens of agencies supervise over 100 programs on the Great Lakes, which in the past has led to fragmentation, inefficiency, and delays. This bill makes EPA that leader. It not only puts EPA permanently at the head of an interagency task force; it designates EPA as the agency to receive all the funding for Great Lakes restoration and then enables EPA to give some of that funding to other agencies doing Great Lakes restoration work.  This funding arrangement is essential because it gives EPA the clout to really direct the restoration effort – even the priorities of other agencies.  But EPA does not have carte blanche; the bill also directs EPA and all the agencies to follow a single Great Lakes restoration plan.  And for those who really like inside baseball, these provisions in the bill have the added benefit of streamlining and consolidating the appropriations process for Great Lakes restoration funding, making approvals necessary from only one appropriations committee in each legislative chamber. (If this part of the bill sounds familiar, that’s because it closely tracks the Administration’s agency directives in the GLRI over the past two years.)
  • The bill establishes a broadly participatory and potentially effective advisory panel for the decisions made by EPA and the other federal agencies. One criticism of the GLRI process over the past two years has been that decisions are made without adequate knowledge or participation by key stakeholders – like states, tribes, cities, and community and business leaders. The bill creates a leadership board and a management committee comprised of those entities to advise EPA and the interagency task force and requires the federal agencies to consider that advice.

So the bill’s a good one. But will it pass?

Well, it has bipartisan co-sponsors from both chambers and many states. And in many respects, it’s simply putting into law what the Administration is already doing and what Congress has already approved through the appropriations process.

The real question is whether Congress (and the rest of us) can get past the Asian carp crisis. If Asian carp take all of our energy and focus, this bill could languish or get derailed.

Yet another reason to figure out how to stop the invasion of the carp, and stop it now.

Great Lakes Restoration Returns

March 12, 2010

Almost lost in the Asian carp turmoil are two major Great Lakes developments that in years past would have dominated the headlines: the release of a 5-year Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan two weeks ago, and the introduction of comprehensive Great Lakes restoration legislation last week.

Today I’ll talk about the Action Plan; in my next post, the restoration legislation.

The Action Plan is a significant refinement of the old blueprint that literally everyone has been using for Great Lakes restoration, the 2005 Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy. The 5-year old Strategy, remember, identified restoration goals, programs to achieve them, and the funding that would be needed – a total of $20 billion over 5-15 years (depending on the program area). The Strategy was an excellent overview – but it needed another level of detail to guide agencies on how to spend the money on the ground.

The Obama Administration in its 2009 Great Lakes budget provided one year’s worth of detail, specifying which agencies would receive money for which programs and which projects. And it promised to develop a 5-year plan that would set out concrete benchmarks, actions and programs to achieve them, and agencies to take those actions. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan issued last month was designed to meet that promise.

So is the Action Plan any good? The short answer is yes, and maybe. Here’s the good:

  • The Action Plan has real benchmarks (how many AOCs cleaned up, how many acres of wetlands restored) by year. That’s important to hold the governments accountable to their promises – to enable us to see if Great Lakes restoration is making a difference on the ground and in the water. And it helps demonstrate to Congress that the current appropriations are being spent well.
  • It carries the right messages. It celebrates the wonder of the lakes, recognizes their vulnerability, and emphasizes the need to improve their health by increasing their resiliency.
  • It appears to be realistic. The benchmarks should be achievable based on the funding assumptions in the plan.
  • The Action Plan assumes that Great Lakes restoration funding will return to $475 million annually – the same as the historic 2009 levels, and the levels we are pushing for this year.

But it’s hard to say the plan really hits the bulls-eye.

My major question – and one we’ve asked the Healing Our Waters Coalition scientists to think about – is whether the plan does enough in five years to make a difference to the overall health of the lakes.

Yes, the benchmarks are important and realistic —  clean up 5 AOCs, restore 97,500 acres of wetlands, cut soluable reactive phosphorus loadings by 4.5%, reduce invasive species introductions by 40 percent (why only 40 percent, asks Henry Henderson in a thoughtful blog post, and several others). But will achieving the benchmarks do enough to help the lakes? Are they too incremental?

I come back to what the region’s leading scientists said in 2005 in their path breaking paper, Prescription for Great Lakes Protection and Restoration, Avoiding the Tipping Point Of Irreversible Changes: the lakes increasingly are suffering from ecosystem breakdowns, a chain reaction of degradation, that can only be reversed if the lakes’ resiliency – what I like to think of as their immune system – is restored. Without fast action, the lakes could reach a tipping point beyond which their health will not recover.

The measures in the Action Plan are designed to improve the lakes resiliency, to help their immune system. But are they enough? Are we giving the lakes asprin when they need IV antibiotics? Because if the lakes need stronger medicine faster, the Action Plan will have to be more ambitious – which would mean changing the Action Plan’s assumptions, from invasive species policies to annual funding recommendations.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but we’re going to find out. If you have an opinion, let me know in this space.

Next post: the new Great Lakes restoration legislation, and why it’s so important.

Waukesha Crusade for Lake Michigan Water Raises Red Flags

March 6, 2010

Guest blog by Marc Smith, Policy Manager, National Wildlife Federation

For those that follow water diversions and the Great Lakes, all you have to do is mention “Waukesha” and it generates such a mixed bag of reactions.

Waukesha, Wisconsin, is a city in and the county seat of Waukesha County, located just west of Milwaukee, and the Great Lakes Basin. It was once known for its extremely clean and good-tasting spring water and was called a “spa town.” This earned the city the nicknames, “Spring City,” and “Saratoga of the West.”

However, the natural springs have since fallen victim to mismanagement, spoiled by pollution and as a result a number have gone dry. Continual withdrawals from the deep aquifers over the years have exposed the water supply to radium, a naturally occurring toxin. Now, Waukesha is pursuing a diversion of Lake Michigan water that, according to the city’s Water Utility, is the best solution to replace its failing deep wells with lake water and comply with a 2018 stipulation it reached with the Department of Natural Resources to supply radium-free water. Lack of compliance with this date will result in stiff fines.

The latest draft application from the City of Waukesha, raises more questions than answers. Granted, lets applaud the Waukesha Water Utility and current Mayor Larry Nelson, for proactively reaching out to all stakeholders, and especially the conservation community, in Southeast Wisconsin and across the Great Lakes Basin. In my mind they have gone out of their way to communicate and work with all the relevant players in their crusade. But given that this application will represent the first out-of-basin request for a diversion since passage of the Great Lakes Compact and this is a precedent setting event that everyone is watching very closely.

At its most basic, the Compact provides protections against diversions outside of the Great Lakes basin and unwise water use within the basin. There are limited exceptions for diversions. Out-of-Basin communities such as Waukesha must have water –diversion applications approved by all eight governors (via the Compact Council). In addition, Wisconsin must consider the input of the two Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes before making a final decision.

But when you compare the current draft application from Waukesha with the exceptions in the Compact, it raises more questions.

Such as:

  1. Unavoidable Need: The Compact is clear that the need for the proposed diversion cannot be reasonably avoided through efficient use and conservation of existing water supplies. Waukesha’s draft is puzzling because of the complete abandonment of the city’s current water supplies. The application repeatedly states that increased groundwater withdrawals are not sustainable, but what about present withdrawals, or reduced withdrawals? Nowhere is there any indication of combining or blending Lake Michigan water with reduced withdrawals from current supplies, which could have the effect of allowing the deep aquifer to gradually recover and for the resulting blend to reduce or eliminate projected treatment requirements;
  2. Reasonable Use: The Compact is clear that diversions are limited to quantities reasonable for the purposes for which the diversion is proposed. However, in Waukesha’s draft, the basis for the city’s proposed diversion quantity -18.5 million gallons per day (mgpd), is based on a projected 2035 maximum day demand. This seems very excessive given that the cities current average is 7 mgpd. The use of water for growth certainly raises the stakes for how the WI Department of Natural Resources and Regional Body treat this application. Moreover, let’s look at the city’s population estimate. According to Waukesha, the population is projected to increase by 30% while average annual demand increases by 58% and peak day demand for water increases by 87%. Red flag. Is Waukesha converting its lawns to cranberry bogs? Seems to me that the real question is about using Great Lakes water for development more than to sustain an existing population;
  3. Return-Flow: The Compact calls for all used water to be returned back to the Great Lakes Basin, less an allowance for consumptive use, at a place as close to the place at which the water is withdrawn. This is probably the most unknown answer in the current draft. The City has proposed to return its treated water via Underwood Creek that eventually flows into Lake Michigan. The cumulative impacts of this discharge are unknown and raise many concerns and potential problems;
  4. No significant adverse impact: Under the Compact, diversions will result in no significant adverse individual or cumulative impacts. Again, the current draft portrays an unclear picture on the impacts to the exhausted and over-stressed Southeast Wisconsin aquifers and throughout the Great Lakes Basin. The good news is that the WI Department of Natural Resources is committed to developing an Environmental Impact Statement on this application;
  5. Environmentally sound and economically feasible water conservation: Looking at the draft application, it is not clear that the benefits of the city’s ongoing water conservation programs have been factored into its projected future demands, and thus its request for Lake Michigan water. This is an important principle for this precedent setting application as the diversion request must reflect the successful and sustained implementation of reasonable conservation measures;
  6. Compliance with all applicable laws: As I list above, there are many red flags here. All the more reason for the Wisconsin DNR to resolve these and other areas of uncertainty through administrative rulemaking before addressing this application for a diversion of Great Lakes water.

I think the biggest theme that seems to be missing in this application is any sense that the spirit of the Compact is to minimize out of basin uses of Great Lakes water. Waukesha’s current crusade seems to be based on economic growth. And even in that attempt, “Spring City” doesn’t make a very strong case.