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.