Great Lakes Commission meets in Duluth
By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune
Published October 10, 2006
An intergovernment group that quietly advances Great Lakes issues is working toward a higher profile as a phalanx of critical issues converges on the region.
The Great Lakes Commission — an advocacy group for the eight Great Lakes states, Ontario and Quebec — holds its annual meeting starting today in Duluth.
There may never have been a time in the commission’s 51-year history where so many issues have come to a head at the same time — from federal funding for Great Lakes environmental restoration to deciding who can siphon off Great Lakes water.
The commission has been advancing the interests of its member states in Congress and other venues for more than a half-century. But some say it hasn’t been doing so with enough force at a critical time in Great Lakes history.
“I’ve been on the commission for 14 years, and there’s been more going on over the past three years than all the years before,” said Tom Huntley, a Minnesota state representative and chairman of the commission.
Huntley, DFL-Duluth, has served two years as chairman. His reign will end at this week’s meeting. The new chairman is likely to be Michigan Lt. Gov. John Cherry.
“There’s a debate about what our role is on a lot of these issues. In some cases it seems we’ve avoided any kind of exposure,” Huntley said.
“We have a tremendous reputation with insiders, within governments, in providing reliable information on the Great Lakes. But most people don’t know who we are or what we do.”
Tim Eder, the commission’s new executive director, agrees.
Eder notes, for example, that as the recent Annex water diversion agreement between the eight states and provinces moved through fragile, high-profile negotiations, the Council of Great Lakes Governors handled the job and spotlight. But it was the Great Lakes Commission that provided the staff and expertise to keep the agreement moving.
“It’s not that we aren’t there on these issues. But we haven’t been very good about taking a visible lead on some things,” Eder said. “That’s certainly my goal and I think it’s the mandate I have from the board of directors.”
The commission was formed in 1955 to tackle state issues surrounding the fledgling St. Lawrence Seaway. Eder said it now has an annual budget of about $4.5 million and a staff of 32, with advocacy, education and communication at the forefront of its mission for the eight states and two provinces.
The commission’s primary focus is on maritime commerce and environmental protection. Working to find a balance among those two sometimes-conflicting interests will be a key component of this week’s meetings.
Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Seaway Port Authority of Duluth, said he’d like to see the commission take a lead role in promoting maritime commerce.
“There’s a real opportunity right now to improve our transportation system, help economic development and help the environment through the advancement of maritime transportation on the lakes,” said Ojard, who will make a presentation at this week’s meeting.
The commission meets at a time when several Great Lakes issues are boiling over:
Great Lakes restoration. The House and Senate last week passed a $16 million annual appropriation for fish and wildlife habitat across the Great Lakes region, doubling the previous year’s spending. It’s a small but critical part of the proposed $20 billion Great Lakes Collabor-ation restoration plan announced in Duluth last year. The restoration effort would improve habitat, clean up toxic hot spots, stop invasive species, end sewage overflows and eliminate toxins like mercury in fish.
Water diversions. Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces are working on a compact that would limit and regulate diversions of water within and outside the watershed of the Great Lakes basin. After a decade of negotiations, the compromise now needs approval from each state, Congress and the provinces.
Ballast water regulation. A federal judge in California this month ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to begin including the shipping industry in enforcement of the Clean Water Act in 2008. The industry already had been working toward solutions, but the two-year deadline to find a way to keep exotic foreign species out of the Great Lakes will add urgency to the effort.
Water levels. While not an issue on Lake Superior yet, declining water levels on the lower Great Lakes have sounded alarms by recreational boaters and the shipping industry. The water levels have been unusually low for several years but have dropped rapidly this year.
Expanded Seaway. Plans continue to surface for an expanded seaway system to handle more and larger ships, while other efforts continue to modernize the existing system that allows ships to move up the lakes.
Coast Guard machine gun practice. Congress has demanded public hearings on a plan by the U.S. Coast Guard to establish live-fire machine guns zones to be used occasionally for training on all the lakes.
Last week the commission announced $1.9 million in grants to local agencies and companies as part of the Great Lakes Basin Program. The program has supported nearly 400 projects and invested more than $12 million in water-quality efforts over 11 years.
This year’s grants include $22,000 to a Mountain Iron logging effort to develop ways to reduce damage to wetlands during logging and $75,000 to the Skunk Creek Stream bank Restoration Project in Lake County.