Tag: John Engler

State of the Great Lakes?

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

This month, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) issued the 2019 State of the Great Lakes Report.

While legitimately showcasing much good news about policies and programs benefiting the Lakes, the report joined the ranks of many that don’t say enough about the conditions of the Great Lakes themselves.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When the Michigan Legislature and Governor in 1985 enacted a statutory requirement for an annual report on the state of the Great Lakes, they envisioned a science-based report card on the health of the waters and related resources of the Lakes themselves. Which pollutants are increasing and which are decreasing in Great Lakes waters? What are quantitative trends in beach closings and key populations of critical aquatic species? What  indicators of climate change are manifesting in the Great Lakes? 

But almost since the first day, and especially under former Gov. John Engler, Michigan’s Great Lakes report has amounted mostly to agency self-praise for a job well done.

Likewise, other Great Lakes institutions have had struggles coming up with objective indicators measuring the health of the Lakes, although they are now making some progress. Under the US-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 2012, the two nations are required to issue a State of the Great Lakes report every three years. Released in May, the most recent report finds:

“Overall, the Great Lakes are assessed as Fair and Unchanging. While progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes has occurred, including the reduction of toxic chemicals, the indicator assessments demonstrate that there are still significant challenges, including the impacts of nutrients and invasive species. The continued actions of many groups and individuals are contributing to the improvements in the Great Lakes.”

The assessment may be overly generous — but even if accurate, its “fair and unchanging” verdict translates at best to a C+. That is far from great effort on behalf of the Great Lakes. We can and must do better.

Back to the new Michigan report: It doesn’t attempt such a report card, but does deliver interesting news on drinking water rules for PFAS and other contaminants, high Great Lakes water levels, Asian carp and research on harmful algae blooms. As a “State of Great Lakes Programs” report, it offers some food for thought — but it doesn’t tell you scientifically where the health of the Lakes is headed.

One highlight of the EGLE report, however, is a discussion of the public trust doctrine, FLOW’s central organizing principle. The report observes:

“The basic premise behind much of the Great Lakes legal protection is the idea that surface water itself is not property of the state, but a public good. Over the years, a number of court cases have firmly established this legal principle, known as the ‘public trust doctrine.’ The public trust doctrine means protecting public water resources for the use and enjoyment of all. Under the public trust doctrine, the state acts as a trustee who is empowered to protect the water.”

We applaud EGLE’s recognition of its trustee role, and encourage Gov, Gretchen Whitmer and EGLE Director Liesl Clark to rely on the public trust doctrine to guide them as they consider their decisions on Line 5, Nestlé water withdrawals, and other weighty matters.

When State Government Favored Environmental Regulations Over “Fries with that Permit”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources historically has played an important role in protecting the environment, particularly during the environmental awakening of the 1970s, when Seth Phillips got his start in state government. In this photo from 2018, an angler speaks with a DNR creel clerk. Photo: Courtesy of the Michigan DNR

By Seth Phillips

My career in environmental protection really began as a youngster. My parents had built a cottage “Up North” in the early 1960s, and I was fortunate to spend my summers on the shores of Lake Michigan, climbing and playing on the Sleeping Bear Dunes before anyone knew it existed and hiking in the north woods. Notwithstanding the big alewife die off that made one summer stink, I fell in love with the northern Michigan outdoors that so many have come to love.

Growing up in southeast Michigan, I was also very familiar with the industrial, urban side of our state. As the years passed, I began to understand the troubled relationship between these two sides of the Great Lakes state. While in college, and struggling to chart my path forward between the urban professional life I knew and was expected to follow, and the natural world I wanted to know better, I discovered the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources, to which I eagerly transferred, and graduated in 1974. My life-long journey to work for our environment had begun.

Starting in 1977, I spent 30 years working for the Michigan Departments of Natural Resources (DNR), Environmental Quality (DEQ, now EGLE) and Transportation (DOT), managing a wide variety of environmental programs, including cross-program planning, hazardous waste management, toxic waste cleanup, emergency response, solid waste management, recycling, field compliance, storm water management, and environmental policy for transportation. I was able to spend a lot of time on policy, legislation, and litigation support—all of which were very interesting and knowledge-expanding work. The dedication to the environment that I shared with all my co-workers never faltered.

But the world in which we worked changed a lot.

I started working as a state regulator in the late 1970s, at a time when there was a strong growth in environmental consciousness in society, and of course, a serious commitment in government to environmental improvement. William Milliken was Michigan’s Governor when I started, and he and the legislature were national leaders in addressing the many challenges our environment faced.

In particular, 1970 was a seminal year for environmental protection in Michigan and nationwide. In January of that year—50 years ago this month— Gov. Milliken unveiled a broad agenda of proposed environmental reforms. In March 1970, students and faculty at the University of Michigan held an environmental teach-in. The first Earth Day was held on April 22.

To work in these programs was great fun back then. New programs were also being enacted at the federal level, which meant money and better program tools. So many programs were new, and we had the freedom and funding to design how they worked and to implement the core values the programs were enacted to foster. 

Our direction was to implement the laws. There was little political interference, and there was broad support in the legislature as well as from the Governor. Michigan enacted new laws to manage hazardous waste, clean up toxic waste sites, end open dumping, build state-of-the-art landfills, and protect wetlands. I used to wake up early to get into work before others just so I could get started. Work was fun, my colleagues were great to work with, and many became life-long friends. Together we accomplished a lot. Michigan’s environment is much better today because of the work so many did back then.

But then the dark ages came. John Engler, a new governor not so friendly to our work, took office in 1991. He sought to gain control over us to stop us from allegedly harming his friends in the business world. But we weren’t anti-business. We were anti-polluter. Unfortunately, these categories were often one in the same.

Under Gov. Engler, the DNR was split into two departments with all the environmental programs moving to a new Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), whose director answered solely to the Governor. And all the fun went away. Upholding environmental standards became a discretionary function. Permit denials were simply outlawed. Inside the agency the morbid joke became, “Do you want fries with that permit?” Funding was cut, and staff was slashed and reorganized (in other words, moved from what they knew how to do to what they didn’t know how to do). Enforcement became almost non-existent. Similar changes happened at the federal level as well.

Michigan desperately needs a return to those heady days when protecting the environment meant more than just saying nice things about it. We keep finding new problems without the wherewithal to address them. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the current federal administration is doing enormous harm to our environmental future. Destruction can happen quickly. Restoration takes a very long time. And in the era of climate change, we don’t have a very long time left.

Seth Phillips retired from service for the state of Michigan in 2007 and is currently the Kalkaska County Drain Commissioner.