Posts Tagged ‘Obama Administration’

Of the White House, Asian carp, and leadership

March 14, 2012

It’s been two weeks since what I think of as “the White House meetings,” when Great Lakes advocates sat down with senior White House officials for two discussions as part of Great Lakes Days in Washington D.C. , Now that the dust has settled, I wanted to share a few thoughts.

First, the White House is COOL! It’s not amazingly ornate or solemn or beautiful; it’s a working space, a little on the small side. But when you walk in you’re hit with this sense of import and energy and focus. Huge decisions get made there by serious people, and whether you agree with them or not, it’s a pretty intoxicating place to be.

It was hard not to be intimidated sitting in the Roosevelt Room across from Administration officials during the White House meeting Monday. I’m proud to say that our merry band of activists was focused, thoughtful, and completely professional — until after the meeting ended. Then everybody started talking at once and tried to get pictures of everybody else in front of the portrait of Teddy on this horse, or FDR, or the Nobel Peace Prize (yeah, that’s hanging on the wall).

If you want a good summary of that meeting and the larger one on Wednesday in the auditorium of the Old Executive Office Building, a good place to go is Joel Brammeier’s blog.  He walks through the issues — funding, nutrients, Asian carp, invasive species, etc. — one at a time and reports on the main discussion points.

First Impression: Obama Admin. Committed to the Great Lakes

I wanted to write about two impressions I took away. First, the Obama Administration truly is committed to the Great Lakes. That commitment, of course, is reflected in the Great Lakes funding budget numbers this and previous years, and we got a pretty good idea of the political capital the Administration had to spend to keep that funding intact.

But it really came through on a personal level in those meetings. Top officials from throughout the Administration, like Commerce Secretary John Bryson not only showed up and made a few comments — they really knew the Great Lakes. I’ll never forget Pete Rouse, President Obama’s special advisor, dropping in to address 120 Great Lakes leaders Wednesday afternoon. Without notes or pause, he spoke for 15 minutes about Great Lakes problems and initiatives, including Lake Erie, Asian carp, funding…. This guy has maybe a thousand issues to keep up with every day, and he knew the Great Lakes stuff cold. That says a lot about this Administration’s priorities at the highest level.

Second Impression: Asian Carp Blind Spot

My second impression is not as positive. When it comes to Asian carp, the Administration still has a blind spot. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, it’s not exerting the kind of leadership from the top that the Lakes need. And when I say from the top, I mean someone at a level who can change the parameters of the debate and move the Army Corps of Engineers.

I don’t know if it’s an overabundance of caution, or an urge to get everybody on the same page before moving forward, but the bold leadership we need here is lacking in critical ways.

To be fair, the Administration has moved quickly and forcefully when it comes to short-term measures to keep the invasive carp out of Lake Michigan, and to the extent that there is not yet a breeding population of Asian carp in the Chicago canals or the lake, those measures have been successful, as Cam Davis pointed out at the briefing. But we know those short-term measures aren’t perfect — witness the discovery of Asian carp eDNA in the canals and at the edge of the lake and the capture of a live silver carp in Lake Calumet. We also know the risk grows every day. That’s why a permanent solution is so important.

Bold Vision Needed on Asian Carp

What’s needed is a vision for that permanent solution and a plan to get there. The conservation community has been pushing for over two years for permanent physical barriers to separate Lake Michigan from the carp-infested rivers in the Mississippi River basin, and the Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Cities Initiative have just finished a study showing how and where such barriers could be built. The reaction from the Administration? No commitments, they say; let’s wait until 2015 for the results of a study by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The White House meetings changed little of that. Pete Rouse said that the Corps would speed up its study but provided no specifics – echoing a letter from Jo Ellen Darcy to concerned U.S. Senators promising to try to accelerate the study. That’s something, but not a lot; there’s no specific date of completion or commitment to study hydrologic separation and not half-measures that won’t protect the lakes from Asian carp. (And I’d like to recognize that the staff of the Corps has been much more transparent in their study timelines and tasks, something we appreciate even if it doesn’t resolve our central concerns.) Certainly there was no bold vision for how to address the crisis.

President & Candidates Must Reframe the Debate on Asian Carp

What we need is to change the framing of the debate. With one sentence, the President could change the conversation from whether there should be permanent physical barriers built in the canals to where, when and how such barriers should be built. More than anything else, that would create the momentum we need to get to an effective permanent barrier quickly, before the carp invade the lakes.

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition has called on the President and all the candidates for the presidency in 2012 to make the commitment to hydrologically separate the Mississippi and Great Lakes basins.

The President and the Administration have exercised bold leadership on so many Great Lakes issues. It’s time they did so on this one, too.

Next post: toxic algal blooms and what we should be doing about them.


Following the money

February 9, 2010

Yes, yesterday was the day of the White House carp summit with the governors, and the feds also released their big Asian carp response plan.

But right now I’d like to squeeze in a little non-Asian carp news on the Administration’s Great Lakes budget. The President proposed $300 million for FY 2011, which you can look at as either a $175 million cut from last year or the second largest Great Lakes budget allocation in history.

The Healing Our Water’s Coalition response is posted below. Of course, later this week look for a return to the carp issue.

Coalition Urges Congress to Restore Funding for Great Lakes

ANN ARBOR, MICH. (Feb. 3, 2010)—The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition today urged Congress to restore funding for Great Lakes restoration, following the release of President Obama’s budget on Monday. The president’s budget includes $300 million for his Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a 36 percent reduction from the $475 million he requested in his inaugural budget.

“Although President Obama’s budget makes Great Lakes restoration a priority, the proposed funding will make it difficult to keep pace with the urgent threats facing the Lakes,” said Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “We’re going to work with Congress and the White House to restore funding to Great Lakes programs before the problems get worse and the solutions get more costly.”

President Obama proposed in his inaugural budget a new, precedent-setting $475 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that helped jump-start long-stalled federal action to restore the Lakes, the largest freshwater resource in the world.

The Administration started strong; it needs to stay strong,” said Andy Buchsbaum, co-chair of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition and regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “After years of federal inaction, there is a huge need to fund solutions that advance Great Lakes restoration and economic recovery. We look forward to working with the Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress to make that happen.”

Each Day, a New Wrinkle

January 23, 2010

It seems like every day this week brought a new wrinkle to the efforts to stop monster Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes. Here’s a partial rundown:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court denied Michigan’s request for an emergency order to close the locks in the Chicago sewer system to stop bighead and silver carp from entering Lake Michigan. But the Court has not yet ruled on Michigan’s request for a long-term solution, the permanent hydrologic separation of Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River system.
  • The same day, we learned from the Army Corps of Engineers that new eDNA samples indicated that the invasive carp had gotten farther than anybody thought: past the O’Brien Lock, and even into Calumet Harbor, a bay in Lake Michigan itself.
  • The White House’s top environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley, announced a “carp summit” would be held in the next few weeks. Midwest governors will be invited, but we don’t know about anybody else. The summit won’t accomplish much if it doesn’t include key Great Lakes stakeholders, so I hope they (we) are included.
  • A bipartisan group of members of Congress introduced bills in the U.S. House and Senate to require the federal government to close the locks and block the Chicago canals immediately to stop the carp from advancing any further. Rep. Camp (R-MI) led the charge in the House with H.R. 4472, imaginatively titled the “CLOSE ALL ROUTES and PREVENT ASIAN CARP TODAY” Act and also know as the CARP Act. Senator Stabenow introduced something similar in the Senate.

Taken together, I think these developments lead to three conclusions:

First, the debate over whether the invasive carp are where the eDNA says they are is virtually over. If a DNA test is positive, then a live carp was there shortly before the DNA sample was taken. How do we know that? Because the scientists say that eDNA samples degrade after 48 hours and they probably come from the stomach contents of live carp. That means a live carp was likely swimming in the area the DNA was found within 48 hours of the taking of the sample. So dumping of dead fish or parts of dead fish, or the discharge of ballast water containing carp residue, is highly unlikely to produce those results. On this point scientists from all sides of the legal debate are pretty much in agreement.

Second, the question now moves on to whether there are reproducible populations of bighead and silver carp in the Chicago canals and the Great Lakes, and if not, when such populations might arrive. Here again, scientists from across the board are largely in agreement that the populations of carp in the canals and the lake aren’t yet at reproducible levels; the inability to find live fish indicate the population densities must be very low. But the scientists don’t know when such high levels might be reached. So that’s where the uncertainty lies over the risk the carp pose and the solutions we should pursue.

Third and finally, I think our best hope for getting action quickly at this point is the White House Summit. I’m not suggesting backing off from the litigation or legislative options, but the White House Summit now is likely to get results faster. President Obama and his top advisors are from Chicago; they know the players; and they are committed to protecting and restoring the Great Lakes (notwithstanding some of the statements the Solicitor General made in the brief before the Supreme Court). With their guidance and the full participation of all the important stakeholders, the Summit could craft a response that is rapid and effective. What we don’t know is whether the Summit will include the right players. Of course the states are essential participants, but so are key cities (like Chicago), the sewer district, environmental organizations, and business interests. Truly effective action will need to include all the stakeholders.

Stay tuned for what’s likely to another roller coaster ride next week….

Next post from… China

January 11, 2010

Talk about ironic. As we wait to see what the Supreme Court will do about the threat of invasive Asian carp entering the Great Lakes, I’m on my way to talk about the Great Lakes at a conference in Nanjing, China.  The conference, put on by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environmental Forum, is about Lake Tai, China’s third largest lake, and how to address its pollution problems. I’ll be talking about the Great Lakes as a success story, highlighting the enactment of the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Water Resources Compact and the development and funding of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. And of course, I’ll also be talking about invasive species – one in particular. I’ll try to avoid causing an international incident.

Before I begin posting about Lake Tai next week, today I wanted to return to the Asian carp problem here in the U.S. and our government’s response to it. As the legal briefs fly and the rhetoric heats up, I think it’s important to remember that every government agency involved in this process cares deeply about the Great Lakes and is exerting enormous efforts to keep the invasive carp out of the Great Lakes. We may disagree with their strategy or methods, but folks in the Obama Administration and the Illinois DNR have been pulling all-nighters through the holidays to try to get a handle on how to protect the lakes from the carp and we need to recognize that.

And we can’t lose sight of the fact that this Administration has already, in its first year, done more for the Great Lakes than any other in history, that President Obama is truly our first Great Lakes president, and that we’re in agreement with the Administration on virtually every other Great Lakes issue.

So let’s not fall into the trap of demonizing people we might disagree with, particularly here, where there are good people in Illinois and the federal agencies who are working very hard to address a really tough problem. Yes, I and others think that the evidence of the presence of carp in the Chicago canal system creates enormous risks to the Great Lakes and compels certain emergency and permanent actions – the temporary closing of the navigation locks and long-term separation of Lake Michigan from Mississippi River basin. And yes, the Administration and Illinois thus far have been unwilling to take those measures, and we support Michigan’s efforts in the Supreme Court to compel them to do so. We will continue to be clear about that. But this is a disagreement among friends who share common goals and we should act that way. The fact remains that this threat is likely to be resolved more quickly and completely through collaboration than conflict. So dialing down the rhetoric, keeping communication channels open, and maintaining strong relationships is more important now than ever.

On to China. I’ll see if I can a good bighead or silver carp recipe…

Big disappointment from Obama administration

January 7, 2010

Big (disappointing) news.  The Obama administration weighed in on the wrong side of the Asian carp issue.

See our press release:

Alliance for the Great Lakes – Great Lakes United – Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition – National Wildlife Federation – Natural Resources Defense Council – Sierra Club

Administration Misses Opportunity to Protect Great Lakes from Asian Carp Threat

ANN ARBOR, MICH. (January 6)—The Obama Administration yesterday opposed taking emergency measures to protect the Great Lakes from the threat of Asian carp— including the temporary closure of two Chicago locks —siding with defendants in a court case that will be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday.

The administration’s action is in response to a lawsuit brought in December by Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox—and since supported by the attorneys general in Indiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin and the Canadian province of Ontario. The lawsuit calls for measures to separate Lake Michigan from Asian-carp infested rivers and canals, including an emergency and temporary closure of two Chicago navigational locks that are the last barrier preventing the invasive fish from entering Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes. The emergency measures would buy time to develop a permanent solution to the problem.

DNA evidence taken by University of Notre Dame researchers suggest that the invasive Asian carp – specifically the silver and bighead carp species – have breached an electric fence in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and are within 6 miles of Lake Michigan.

Bighead and silver carp are large filter-feeders that out-compete native fish for food and habitat. Individuals can weigh up to 110 pounds for bighead carp and 60 pounds for silver carp. Boaters have been injured by silver carp because the fish is easily startled and hurls itself out of the water and into or over boats in response to boat motors.

Conservation groups criticized the Obama Administration’s actions:

“By aiming for the status quo, these filings miss the real target,” said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “Five states have spoken loudly and clearly that the connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi has already become a liability. Separating these systems is the only pathway to protection.”

“The Obama Administration has miscalculated the threat Asian carp pose to the Great Lakes,” said Andy Buchsbaum, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. “Without immediate action, an invasion of Asian carp will unravel many of the President’s Great Lakes initiatives. Regardless of what happens in the Supreme Court, the Obama administration needs to do the right thing.”

“The Asian carp pose an immediate, very significant threat to the entire Great Lakes region, and we have a limited window of time in which to act to prevent their entry into the Lakes,” said Emily Green, director of the Sierra Club’s Great Lakes Program. “We are counting on the Obama Administration to take the lead in addressing this threat and to take all actions necessary to prevent the carp from entering the Great Lakes, including an emergency closure of the locks. The stakes are too high for anything less.”

“Illinois and the federal government are walking away from a huge opportunity to fix real problems in the region, and instead favor the easier embrace of the status quo,” said Henry Henderson, director of the Midwest program for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  “Asian carp are now knocking on the door of the Great Lakes precisely because the state and federal agencies in charge have responded slowly and ineffectively. They cannot now argue that they have this problem under control when they are the ones who allowed this emergency to develop in the first place. Whether they like it or not, the State of Illinois and Army Corps of Engineers are on the hook with responsibility to protect the Great Lakes.”

“DNA says that least a few carp have breached our only line of defense,” said Jennifer Nalbone, director of invasive species and navigation for Great Lakes United. “If DNA evidence is good enough to put criminals in jail, DNA evidence should be good enough to pull out all the stops to protect the Great Lakes and close those locks.”

“The Obama Administration has made Great Lakes restoration a top priority, which is why we are disappointed that it has chosen not to pursue closing the locks to protect the Lakes from the Asian carp,” said Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “Failure to confront the threat of the Asian carp threatens to undermine the progress the nation is making to restore the Great Lakes and revive the economy.”

For Immediate Release:
January 6, 2010

Joel Brammeier, Alliance for the Great Lakes, 773-590-6494
Andy Buchsbaum, National Wildlife Federation, 734-887-7100
Emily Green, Sierra Club Great Lakes Program, 608-695-4994
Josh Mogerman, Natural Resources Defense Council, 312-651-7909
Jennifer Nalbone, Great Lakes United, 716-213-0408
Jeff Skelding, Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, 202-797-6893