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.