Testimony of Diane Katz
Director of Science, Environment and Technology Policy
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy
140 W. Main Street
Midland, MI 48640
(313) 378-6986

Before the
U.S. Senate
Committee on Environment and Public Works
On
Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy
To Restore and Protect the Great Lakes
March 16, 2006

Mr. Chairman and Honorable Senators, good morning.

My name is Diane Katz, and I am director of science, environment and technology policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The Mackinac Center is a Michigan-based, nonpartisan research and educational institute that assists lawmakers, the media and the public in evaluating policy options. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to join this discussion of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy.

In the interest of brevity and clarity, I will speak plainly.

Before you is an ambitious Strategy intended to "restore" the Great Lakes ecosystem. Using passionate language, the architects of this Strategy claim that we have "failed to protect" our beloved Great Lakes. Putting aside, for the moment, legitimate differences of opinion about the actual state of the lakes, there is broad agreement that our stewardship of these amazing waters requires significant change. But the shortcomings of the current approach stem not from any lack of regulation or resources, as the Strategy report contends. On the contrary, the problem is the excess of well-intended but ill-conceived programs that fall under disjointed regulatory agencies at the international, federal, state, provincial and local levels.

Unfortunately, the problem will not be remedied by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy, which prescribes more unwieldy and inefficient regulation. As the report states, the Strategy was "developed through an inclusive process aimed at achieving the broadest consensus possible." That means the Strategy is more a product of the political process than the scientific method — just like the existing regime.

Numerous restoration strategies for the lakes have been hatched over the years. Most, if not all, have advocated an expansion of the regulatory state. But we will achieve better results only by applying the most basic truths of good governance — that incentives are more powerful than punishment; that sound science yields better results than rhetoric; and, most importantly, that citizens are far better stewards of their property than the state will ever be.

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There is no definitive accounting of the billions of dollars allocated for Great Lakes programs. That in itself says a great deal about the status quo. There is also no comprehensive accounting of the numerous Great Lakes programs initiated over the past three decades. To fill this information gap, the Mackinac Center has undertaken a "census" of Great Lakes programs that so far has identified more than 200 government initiatives. Many lack measurable goals, and there’s little of the coordination necessary to maximize environmental improvements.

Rationalizing these myriad programs was the principal task of the eight Strategy teams that crafted the restoration plan. What has materialized instead is a regulatory wish list that is sweeping in scope but limited in scientific and economic rationale. Hopefully, the Executive Committee will pursue meaningful change rather than tinkering at the margins. This would entail identifying for elimination the dozens of redundant, ineffective programs, while also advocating for the restoration of property rights, common law and impartial risk assessment as the foundation of Great Lakes stewardship. The lakes deserve no less.

The Strategy also suffers from internal inconsistency. On the one hand, the report laments the failure of existing programs to adequately protect the Great Lakes. On the other hand, the Strategy calls for greatly expanding the regulatory powers of the very government agencies that the Strategy argues have mismanaged the job. It’s time to abandon the command-and-control methods that empower the environmental bureaucracy.

It is further confounding that implementation of the Strategy is assigned exclusively to federal cabinet officials, governors, mayors and American Indian tribal leaders. But successful stewardship requires market-based approaches that rely on private sector input.

***

The Strategy is also compromised by its underlying supposition that the Great Lakes are teetering on the verge of collapse. According to the report, "Our Great Lakes … are succumbing to an irreversible ‘invasional meltdown.’"

In fact, water quality has improved dramatically during the past three decades in large measure because of more efficient technologies. As stated in Michigan’s 2006 report, Water Quality and Pollution Control, "The open waters of the Great Lakes have good to excellent water quality." Indeed, wildlife is thriving, with hatchery stocks comprising less than 20 percent of the trout population in Lake Superior. Moreover, eagle sightings have soared, while analyses of blood and feathers document a dramatic decrease in PCB concentrations compared to a decade ago. Likewise, trout samples taken from four Great Lakes show an 85 percent drop in PCB concentrations, from a high of more than 20 parts per million (ppm) in the early 1970s to less than 3 ppm more recently. The fall fish survey by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recorded double the number of juvenile perch than the previous record, set in 1989, when the survey was launched. Mercury levels are lower, while lead accumulations have declined in every sample since the 1980s.

Nor has public access to the Great Lakes seriously diminished despite such claims in the Strategy report. Michigan state forests, for example, provide 485 water access sites. The 96 state parks in the Great Lakes State feature a total of 100 boat launches. Two national lakeshores, Pictured Rocks and Sleeping Bear Dunes, span miles of Great Lakes coast.

Missing from the Strategy report is any examination of government’s role in exacerbating contamination of the lakes. Agricultural subsidies, for example, have long contributed to excessive use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, while water and sewage treatment grants have produced inefficient facilities. In Michigan, more than 45 percent of the cases settled by the water enforcement bureau in the past 15 years involved errant municipalities, as well as counties and other public entities.

The infiltration of non-native species is a legitimate concern. But a lack of comprehensive data has precluded informed decision-making on environmental priorities. No basin-wide monitoring currently exists. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has largely relied on a shrinking set of indicators to gauge basin conditions.

Many government agencies only collect data on program inputs, not outcomes. We know, for example, that $37 million has been allocated this year for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. But there never has been an independent evaluation of program effectiveness, according to the federal Office of Management and Budget. Similarly, the Pesticide Enforcement Grant Program measures success only by the rate of inspections that result in enforcement action, rather than any actual reduction of pesticide runoff.

The Collaboration Strategy does emphasize a need for "consistent methods to measure and monitor key indicators of the ecosystem’s function." All of which would be most welcome. But unless and until we abolish ineffective programs, there isn’t likely to be funding available to properly launch new research initiatives.

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The waste of resources is rampant. For example, some 88 research vessels operate independently in the Great Lakes, according to the Great Lakes Association of Science Ships. Or consider that the Great Lakes Water Quality Initiative (GLI) targets discharges from point sources despite the fact that non-point sources, such as air depositions and agricultural runoff, are now the greater sources of pollution. Moreover, many of the chemicals regulated under GLI have long been restricted or banned.

The sheer number of proposed regulatory initiatives belies any claim that the Strategy establishes priorities. Science would offer the most reliable guidance for such a task. Unfortunately, a good many of the regulatory goals are as unscientific as they are unrealistic, which undercuts the credibility of the plan. For example, the Strategy calls for preventing "all new introductions" of aquatic invasive species into the Great Lakes, as well as the elimination of "any or all" persistent toxic substances to the ecosystem. But non-native species are an unavoidable fact of nature, as are naturally occurring toxics.

It is also important to recognize that a zero-tolerance mentality toward resource use forecloses the development of environmentally friendly technologies, and in doing so diminishes the wealth creation necessary to further enhance environmental improvements. Well-meaning though it may be, this doesn’t make effective policy.

Ideological absolutes also exacerbate the difficulties of negotiating the policy trade-offs necessitated by limited resources. But even if we were to devote $20 billion more to lakes’ protection, as called for in the Strategy, the benefits would not be commensurate with costs. Major pollution sources are now under control and, for the most part, we are left to make marginal improvements that are much harder to achieve. Just as dieters struggle hardest to shed those last unwanted pounds, so, too, does further progress on the environmental front demand more concentrated effort. Now more than ever, then, more effective policy is needed, but the Strategy will only put that further out of reach.

In presenting this critique, it is not my intention to denigrate the efforts of task force members. Their public service is admirable. But meaningful progress in Great Lakes restoration requires more than good intentions. It requires political courage in tandem with the application of sound science and time-tested economic principles. Toward that end, I recommend:

  • Eliminating programs that cannot document environmental improvements commensurate with costs.

  • A greater reliance on property rights and market-based incentives to revive areas of concern.

  • Private-sector involvement in crafting more effective Great Lakes policy.

  • Scrutiny of government’s role in exacerbating contamination of the lakes.

  • Development of a basin-wide data base of ecological conditions with which to set stewardship priorities and determine effective remedies.

  • Ongoing measurement of program outcomes, not inputs.

These recommendations spring not from mere ideology alone, although I fervently believe in limited government. These recommendations reflect fundamental principles of governance that have long proven to be the most successful in fulfilling policy goals. Finally, these recommendations are rooted in my summers spent floating in Lake Huron, climbing Lake Michigan dunes, and quenching my thirst with Superior’s chilly waters while portaging Isle Royale. Such adventures are invaluable to the human spirit, and more effective stewardship will help to ensure that the same opportunities exist for generations to come.