Advocates for the environment are still
needed, author says
By Jeff Kart
Bay City Times
Published September 6th, 2004
As soon as 50 years in the future, attractions on the
Great Lakes may include uncovered shipwrecks exposed by
historically low water levels.
That's one of many predictions in "On the Brink:
The Great Lakes in the 21st Century," a new book
by Dave Dempsey, policy adviser for the Michigan Environmental
Council and former environmental adviser to Gov. James
"The real message is that the Great Lakes are drifting
toward disaster, but they can be saved if citizens mobilize
to protect them," said Dempsey, 47, of Lansing.
The book is packed with tales of past warnings that came
true, such as overfishing that helped wipe out the native
Michigan Grayling fish and overcutting that cleared forests
along the Saginaw River hundreds of years earlier than
There also are stories of recovery, brought on by people
who became vocal and outraged over issues like the "death"
of Lake Erie due to pollution and the dumping of waste
into Lake Superior by a mining company.
Dempsey said the Great Lakes need advocates again, with
ongoing climate change and growing water use and demand.
"In the past decade and a half, people have gotten
complacent about the Great Lakes," he said.
People just assume that government and environmental
groups are keeping businesses and others in check and
making sure the lakes are protected, Dempsey said. But
politicians pay a lot of lip service to Great Lakes protection,
he said, and there is an unhealthy relationship between
industry and government in some areas.
The zebra mussel was first discovered in the Great Lakes
in the 1980s, for instance, but controls weren't put into
place for 15 years after objections from the shipping
industry, Dempsey said.
"The environment is too important to be left to
the environmentalists," he said, suggesting that
people get active by volunteering and speaking out on
environmental issues rather than just making monetary
donations to environmental groups.
Terry Miller, chairman of the Lone Tree Council, a Bay
City area environmental group, agrees that more advocates
His group has only a handful of active members, who have
been battling with the Dow Chemical Co. over dioxin contamination
in the Tittabawassee River and advocating for controls
on the grooming of coastal wetlands in the Saginaw Bay.
When the Lone Tree Council formed in the 1970s to oppose
plans for a Midland Nuclear Plant, its membership was
around 300, Miller said.
Dempsey said today's threats to the lakes are more subtle
than in the past, when water pollution caused an Ohio
river to catch fire, for example.
"A lot of problems don't have immediate day-to-day
impacts on people's lives, but they are contributing to
the gradual and steep decline of the lakes as a healthy
ecosystem and that will have effects for our children,"
He said previous generations tried to think ahead, by
setting aside land for national parks, for instance, and
passing laws like the Clean Water Act in the 1970s.
"We seem to be more focused on today and tomorrow
than 20 or 30 years from now," Dempsey said. "That's
a recipe for the doom of the Great Lakes if it continues."
He said Michigan is the only Great Lakes state with no
real water conservation legislation, and no limits on
how much water can be taken out.
He encourages people to attend ongoing hearings on the
proposed Water Legacy Act, and call for protections against
allowing water bottling plants to ship water outside the
No Legacy Act hearings are scheduled in the Saginaw Bay
area, but people can make their voices heard by calling
their state legislator, he said. Information about how
to comment on a complement to the act, an international
water diversion protection proposal called Annex 2001,
is available online at www.speakongreatlakes.org.
Dempsey's book offers new ideas for governing the Great
Lakes that aim to bring citizens back into the process,
by using the Internet and creating community councils
on Great Lakes issues.
Dempsey's book, published by Michigan State University
Press, is available at local book stores and online at
- Jeff Kart covers the environment and politics for The
Times. He can be reached at 894-9639.