Hope for an Effective “Great Lakes Action Plan”

The very able and impressive Lisa Jackson, Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, chose this Sunday morning to issue a 5 year “Action Plan” to restore and protect the Great Lakes.  The EPA announcement assured us that the “Action Plan” is not “intended to be another grand statement about the Great Lakes.” Rather, it “is intended to ‘operationalize’ those [grand] statements.”  (USEPA website releasing the Action Plan http://greatlakesrestoration.us/?p=445)

Specifically, the Action Plan intends to build upon the $475 million provided for a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) in the FY’10 federal budget, and envisions this as part of a $2.2 billion amount to be spent for Great Lakes restoration and protection to implement the Action Plan. The monies will be directed at several clear areas of need: 

  • reducing and remediating toxic pollution in the Lakes,
  • restoring the health of near-shore environments (read: make it safe to use the beaches—see NRDC Testing the Waters reports),
  • protecting wildlife and critical habitat,
  • establishing “zero tolerance” for invasive species, and
  • erecting a structure for accountability, monitoring, outreach and strategic partnerships.

There are several initial reactions to the Action Plan.

First, GLRI funding itself is obviously necessary for the task before us, but funding in and of itself is not sufficient.

Second, two elements of the release of the Action Plan suggest that the need for reform of “Governance” is understood and will be addressed.

Third, we have reason to be concerned about the adequacy of their “zero tolerance” for invasive species (and Asian Carp, in particular). 

Here are the details for each:

1.) Funding

As we have previously commented about GLRI funding, our primary deficit in the Great Lakes is a "deficit of effective governance"---and reform of governance is essential if we are to effectively use the monies appropriated (and already being spent) and really restore, protect and improve the Great Lakes ecosystem and economic community. A plethora of governmental bodies, agencies, interest groups, policies, programs and priorities are involved in multiple areas of Great Lakes environment and economy---constituting a complicated “governance” structure for the Great Lakes. There are areas and activities where the governance is effective.  However, the multiplicity of efforts and institutions is frequently redundant, fragmentary and even contradictory; characterized by overlaps, conflict and significant gaps that are harmful to the Great Lakes and the communities that depend upon the health of the Lakes.  For instance, lack of coordination and understanding of the relationship between environmental and economic activities in the Great Lakes Basin persists, presenting a major challenge of Great Lakes governance that must hold the ecological and economic nature of the Great Lakes in balance. The need to resolve governmental fragmentation has long been recognized, and the Action Plan presents an opportunity to establish better governance of the Great Lakes.[1] 

2.) Governance

The Action Plan itself sets forth as a key objective the establishment of a structure for “Accountability, Education, Monitoring, Evaluation, Communication and Partnerships,” with a number of clear deliverables tied to specific timing and outcomes identified as key to the Plan. This is welcome and helpful---particularly the “accountability” and “partnership” elements, which are central elements of improved governance.

It is worth noting in this context, that the Great Lakes Action Plan is the latest in efforts by the Obama Administration to bring greater clarity to the federal government’s essential role in participating in the governance structure of our Nation’s great waters. In June, the President set out to create a national policy for our oceans and Great Lakes (think Clean Air Act for our Air) that will create a unifying national policy to guide management for these resources. Right now, they are currently governed by, basically, chaos – with more than 20 agencies enforcing 140 laws, each with different goals and often conflicting mandates. This policy gives us a better system for coordinating agency work to tackle the challenges in the Great Lakes – from invasive species to sewer pollution. And as part of this policy, after numerous public discussion and stakeholder meetings, we’re hoping the President will make the policy official in the near future by issuing an Executive Order.

It is of the highest importance that the critical role of the numerous federal agencies, programs and laws are properly integrated into and coordinated with the numerous state, local and civic policies, programs, authorities and culture that make up the “governance structure” determining the fate of our great waters. (See, Oran Young, (ed), Global Governance, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1997.) The Great Lakes Action Plan, and the National Ocean and Great Lakes policy in the works, reflect this understanding and present important efforts to move forward in this area.

Perhaps less tangible for some, but extremely important for our view, is the prominent involvement of Administrator Jackson in the Action Plan. It is profoundly important to have the energetic intelligence and institutional sophistication of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson directly and actively engaged in Great Lakes policy and governance---we need her capacity for engagement and leadership if the Action Plan is to actually help move the disparate and often fragmented elements of federal, state and local governments into a more effective shape and coordinated web of activity. 

We also have reason to believe that Administrator Jackson will bring the appropriate appreciation for, and understanding of the essential role of citizen engagement and advocacy that is a central part of getting things right in the Great Lakes.  As Administrator, Ms. Jackson has demonstrated a firm understanding and commitment to the role of citizen engagement in environmental policy in matters of Clean Air and Clean Water issues, where citizen participation in the development and enforcement of environmental rules, regulations, principles and standards.

In the Great Lakes context, Administrator Jackson directed USEPA to respond the citizen group challenge to EPA’s inadequate ballast water regulation, as set forth in lawsuits filed by NRDC, NWF and others. However, this direction has not yet resulted in firm action to redress the failures of the current EPA ballast water permit regime. While we remain hopeful that our ongoing discussions with EPA will bear fruit, but even now – over one year after Jackson’s confirmation – EPA has yet to make any definite public announcements about setting stricter standards on ballast water, and the Great Lakes and other waters of the United States remain under attack from the continued release of invasive species and other pollutants from ballast water and other sources. Which brings us to the next point about the Action Plan: invasive species.

3.)  Asian Carp!

The Action Plan repeatedly commits to a “Zero Tolerance” standard on invasive species in the Great Lakes. This is indeed a welcome commitment.  However, the details of what this commitment means, especially with regard to the current assault on the Great Lakes from Asian Carp through the Chicago Waterway System is not only unclear, but is simply unhappy-making.  The governmental response to the Asian Carp assault has been an iconic demonstration of the “deficit in good governance” in the Great Lakes, characterized by a muddling, bungling, unresponsive, secretive, lackadaisical, fragmented approach and fundamental lack of imagination. While the Action Plan refers to the Asian Carp threat, it adds nothing at all new or hopeful to the status quo, providing a little “inset” summarizing the unfocused efforts undertaken to date, and promising more of the same. This is certainly nothing in the way of “operationalizing” a “Zero Tolerance” approach to a very serious invasive species, whose eDNA has already been found in the Great Lakes. 

This raises a broader concern about the Action Plan’s commitment on invasive species more generally. While the Plan announces a “zero tolerance” approach, noting the ongoing, persistent threat invasive present to the ecosystem, it in fact only commits to a modest interim goal:  reduction of new introductions by 40% by 2014.

The Plan does not explain how either the modest interim goal of 40% reduction was set, or how that interim goal or the ultimate “zero tolerance” goal will be achieved, except through vague references to development of new technology.  There’s no clear explanation of how EPA and the federal agencies propose to get there, let alone a discussion of the Clean Water Act requirements will be actualized regarding ballast water discharge, or how to address the serious imminent threats channels such as the Chicago Waterway System.

Moreover, the interim goal of 40% reduction by 2014 of new introductions of invasive species is far too weak.  According to an analysis by the Coast Guard that accompanied its recently proposed rule, full implementation of IMO ballast water treatment would reduce new introductions by over 60%.  So EPA’s proposed interim goal doesn’t even include full implementation of the Coast Guard’s proposal.  And, the IMO standards called for by the Coast Guard rule are themselves too weak, in that they would still allow for a significant risk of new invasions.

Last August, NRDC filed comments authored by my colleague Thomas Cmar, on a draft outline of the “Action Plan.” In part, our comment provided:

Further detail and transparency are needed, however, with regard to the Agency’s plans to prevent the further introduction and spread of invasive species through vessels’ discharge of ballast water. . . .  U.S. EPA’s current regulation of ballast water discharges under the Vessel General Permit does not live up to the requirements of the Clean Water Act. . . .  In addition, U.S. EPA has not adequately explained how it intends to coordinate with the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Maritime Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Marine Fisheries Service, all of which have important roles to play in the federal government’s response to the invasive species problem.  Although the draft Great Lakes Multi-Year Restoration Action Plan Outline proposes a number of ambitious actions with regard to invasive species, and the President’s budget envisions the expenditure of large sums of money on different programs at different agencies, the draft outline does not explain how these various programs fit into a coherent whole.  Nor does the draft outline fully account for the important roles of state and regional entities.  Finally, the draft outline does not explain what U.S. EPA believes to be the ultimate goal for ballast water regulation in the Great Lakes or lay out specific interim steps to meet that goal.

While there are elements of the Action Plan outline that respond to our critique of the draft, it is fundamentally inadequate on the major issue of invasive species, which in its own terms it recognizes as a major, immediate threat to the health safety and well being of the Great Lakes.  This is an issue of great significance to the Great Lakes region and that EPA must act to address it.  An “Action Plan” that sets a rhetorical goal of eliminating invasive species introductions, but fails to explain adequately how that goal will be accomplished, is not an adequate response. And it is not “good governance” on this critical issue.

4. Conclusion.

We are heartened that Administrator Jackson herself announced a new Action Plan for coordinating federal activity in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and thereby giving greater coherence to the governance structure needed to restore the Great Lakes. Administrator Jackson has shown a strong interest, willingness and ability to get into the details of policy and programs, and make the promise of government actually contribute to practical realization of goals. We look forward to working with her to make the promise of restoration real.

However, real gaps and problems in moving forward remain, and are reflected in the very heart of the Action Plan itself, especially regarding invasive species.

Given that the Action Plan was released on a Sunday morning, perhaps I can be forgiven for reflecting on the Epistle to the Hebrews, which comments that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen." (Chapter 11, verse 1). In this spirit, we fervently hope that the promise inherent in Administrator Jackson’s release of the Great Lakes Action Plan comes to fruition with her direct engagement in its further development and practical implementation.