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Great Lakes Moment: Dave Dempsey’s Love for the Great Lakes

Great Lakes Moment: Dave Dempsey’s Love for the Great Lakes
August 5, 2019 John Hartig

Dave Dempsey grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, with his parents taking him and his brothers to the Detroit River and Belle Isle to watch the freighters.  Those steel leviathans left a big impression on that little kid.

But he never really considered water or environmental protection as a career until a trip to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore when he was 24.  He camped close to the lake bluffs and woke early in the morning to the sound of waves rhythmically pounding the base of the bluff.  As he got up to observe that seemingly infinite lake, he had a sudden conviction that he wanted to work to save places like that so that people in 500 years could be as awed as he was at that moment.

Dave went on to follow his passion of caring for our inland seas.  Over the years, he served as the environmental advisor to Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard, executive director of the Michigan Council on Environmental Quality, the policy advisor to the International Joint Commission and the policy advisor of For Love of Water, among other roles in many organizations.

Besides a long career as a well-respected policy advisor, Dave is a gifted author and storyteller.  His writing is a unique blend of his 30-year career shaping Great Lakes policy and his passion for inspiring a stewardship ethic for our inland seas.  His 11 books have won numerous awards and, in 2009, the Michigan Center for the Book, the Michigan Library Association and Sleeping Bear Press gave Dave the prestigious Michigan Author Award for his outstanding body of literary work.

In his latest book, titled “Heart of the Lakes”, Dave tells the rich stories of the water resources that make up southeast Michigan.  He takes readers on a trip from Port Huron where Lake Huron empties into the St. Clair River, south through Lake St. Clair, and ending where the Detroit River empties into Lake Erie.  Dave feels strongly that southeast Michigan should redefine itself based on water, and political, business and other leaders of the region need to coalesce around a water identity backed up with energy, persistence, and funding.  Southeast Michigan has a great opportunity to create jobs and a higher quality of life this way.

Two critically important challenges facing the region include: investing in our aging and inadequate sewer and water infrastructure; and educating our citizens so they understand our challenges and opportunities enough to encourage our leaders to act.

Dave’s advice for the next generation of people who care about the waters of southeast Michigan and the Great Lakes is simple – learn from our mistakes and successes.

And don’t be bound by a limited vision.

“Put water at the center of our civic life and personal lives,” Dave notes in his book. “We are the freshwater capital of the world — if we choose to be.  Let’s not let others get there first.”

Many young people in southeast Michigan are still disconnected from the waters in their backyard.  Dave feels the most important thing that can be done to reconnect young people to the waters of southeast Michigan and the Great Lakes is to get more of them out on the water, enjoying and learning.

“We should commit to making sure every child has that chance,” Dave writes in the book.  If Dave had his way, every child in southeast Michigan would be ushered to the river to learn an environmental curriculum linked directly to water.

There are a number of important lessons to be learned from “Heart of the Lakes”.  A critical one is that when we put our minds to it, we can heal the damage we’ve done to our waters.  The Detroit River has come a long way in 50 years.  The water is noticeably cleaner, and sturgeon and bald eagles are returning.  It’s a terrific good-news story.

In researching “Heart of the Lakes”, Dave also relearned how individuals make a profound difference when it comes to protecting water.  One example Dave shares is how people stood up to protect the last mile of natural shoreline on the U.S. mainland of the Detroit River – Humbug Marsh. The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge that was created is now a source of community pride.  Dave feels that if southeast Michigan can get its act together and overcome historic differences, there’s no limit to what it can do in becoming a true freshwater capital.

If you love the waters of southeast Michigan and Great Lakes, or if you want to learn more about them or how this region could achieve competitive advantage for both present and future generations, then “Heart of the Lakes” is a must read.

Featured Image: The Heart of the Lakes, Photo by Dave Dempsey

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