Great Lakes Summit Coming This Summer

This could be a big deal for the Great Lakes.

Last week, in the highest profile address he makes all year, the State of the State, Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder called for all the region’s Governors and Premiers to gather this summer on Mackinac Island for a Great Lakes Summit. In his words:

In June, I was proud to be elected the co-chair of the Great Lakes Governor’s Council and what we are going to be doing. I have already invited the other Governors and Premiers, so hopefully we will be holding a session on Mackinac Island, bringing Great Lakes’ Governors and Premiers together, to talk about what, and how, we can do more to protect and enhance and benefit the Great Lakes of our wonderful state, which, we all love. So that’s important.

Snyder telegraphed that he’d be making this announcement in November in a speech he made on energy and the environment. Still, elevating the Great Lakes summit to the State of the State is a welcome development. While we don’t the details yet, it’s a safe bet that key issues like invasive species, the economic benefits of the lakes and funding will be somewhere on the agenda.

So why might this be a major deal for the lakes? Well, let’s look at the history. A summit like this has happened only once before:  thirty years ago, in 1982, convened by Michigan’s Governor Milliken, again on Mackinac Island. The governors met, sponsored resolutions and then afterwards began to work on implementing them.

Those resolutions eventually led to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the Great Lakes Initiative (an amendment to the Clean Water Act), Congressional protections against water diversions, the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, and the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy which has served as the blueprint for over $1 billion in federal investment in the Great Lakes. Some of these took awhile, but the foundations were laid at the Summit meeting in 1982.

So what will come out of this year’s summit?

For one thing, at the very least it will bring the current governors and premiers of the region together for the first time to forge an identity as Great Lakes leaders. In much of the past decade, the Great Lakes region had a remarkably stable group of governors and premiers who saw the value of the Great Lakes to our land and water, to our economy, to our health, and to our quality of life. Their understanding of those issues and their collective identity as Great Lakes leaders helped unify the region and move forward the Compact, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and other unprecedented protections for the lakes.

But the region’s most recent crop of governors has been more exclusively focused on crises in their states. They haven’t come together as a region, and that’s hurt our region’s collective power. This summit could unify them to capture the momentum the Great Lakes enjoyed in the last decade.

I have more ambitious dreams for the summit. Our region’s problems and opportunities more and more bridge the environment and the economy. The Compact and the GLRI show that protecting the Great Lakes is good for our economy. A groundbreaking Brookings Institution study by top economists proved it for all to see.

Our businesses now see the Great Lakes as one of our region’s major competitive advantages. The region’s metro Chambers of Commerce – from all the big Great Lakes cities – have formed their own organization to promote that advantage.

This summit has the opportunity to frame solutions through that perspective – to think of the Great Lakes as the environment and economy working together and not in opposition. Think about it – when economic and ecological systems work together, when the Great Lakes are healthy, isn’t that when our states and our region are most prosperous, most attractive to industry and best for our workers, most pleasing to our residents?

These governors and premiers at this summit are well positioned to make this happen. I hope they see the opportunity and run with it.

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