After eight years of predictability under the Obama administration, the Trump team has approached Great Lakes policy in its first 100 days with disruption.
The type of disturbance that would cause natural disaster planners to ask the “what if” questions.
What if federal funding for the Great Lakes went from the current $300 million annually to zero? What if Trump actually kept a campaign promise to drastically scale back the U.S. EPA and dismantle Obama era regulations like the clean water rule and the clean power plan?
In the first 100 days of his presidency Trump has taken action on all three and now this.
This week’s what if for supporters of the Great Lakes is, what if the U.S. EPA office in Chicago – known as Region 5 –was closed as part of a consolidation of offices around the country?
That’s what the Chicago Sun Times reported is under consideration this week attributing it to “ a city source who’s plugged in to federal-government happenings.”
The Region 5 office houses the Great Lakes National Program Office. It’s home to the staff that manages programs like the restoration initiative, the water quality agreement with Canada, cleanup of old toxic sites and more.
Responses to the office closing report were predictable.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Sun Times, …”we cannot turn our backs on the Great Lakes and allow the Trump administration to muffle the EPA.” Michigan U.S. Rep. Fred Upton called the move “shocking.” Henry Henderson from the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Chicago office characterized the potential closing as “Trump vs. Chicago” in his blog.
Robert Kaplan is the acting administrator for the Region 5 office and he told his staff in an email that the office closing wasn’t being discussed. He said “anyone stating anything to the contrary is spreading false information.” Kaplan’s email was forwarded to the Detroit News.
EPA administrator Scott Pruitt was in Chicago on Wednesday and did not comment on the Chicago office according to a Chicago Tribune report on his visit.
But would it be a big deal if the EPA’s Great Lakes office closed?
Not according to longtime lakes policy expert Dave Dempsey.
Taking a stand against closing the office would be “low on my priority list” Dempsey told Great Lakes Now. He said if the closing happened it “wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
Dempsey pointed to the importance of being strategic when picking your battles.
He said it’s better to fight for good policy and that can be done without an office in Chicago. He’d put emphasis on retaining the clean water rule and restoring the funding cuts rather than using political capital to argue about the location of an office.
Why not Michigan?
Now that there’s a spotlight on the location of the Great Lakes office, here’s a question. Is Chicago the best place for it anyway?
Might an outsider with little knowledge of the region ask; why isn’t the office that manages the Great Lakes in Michigan, the Great Lakes state?
The state that borders four of the five lakes. (Illinois barely touches Lake Michigan). Michigan also borders Canada connected with two bridges and a third is in the works. The U.S and Canada share responsibility for the health of the lakes.
And the International Joint Commission (IJC) that advises the two countries on trans-border water issues has an office across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario.
Michigan is the home of the Great Lakes Commission representing the region’s governors. The Great Lakes Fisheries Commission is in Ann Arbor along with academic and research support from the University of Michigan. Michigan State and Wayne State Universities are each an hour away.
Back to Dave Dempsey who spent the last six years at the IJC where he had a front row look at Great Lakes governance.
Moving the EPA’s Great Lakes office to Ann Arbor would be the “perfect solution” Dempsey told Great Lakes Now. The close proximity of key players “would improve performance of Great Lakes programs” Dempsey said.
The Trump administration has put entrenched Great Lakes policies and programs in play. He’s attempting to disrupt and cause an examination of them for better or worse depending on your perspective.
A change of venue for Great Lakes management may be one of them.
Editor’s note: Great Lakes Now contributor Gary Wilson grew up in the Downriver area of Detroit a few miles from the Detroit River. He now lives in Chicago a few miles from the current EPA Region 5 office.