Gary Wilson: Cheeseburgers, algae and Great Lakes candor

Being a Great Lakes commentator requires a lot of reading. Every day I check for Great Lakes stories in about nine newspapers.

I follow countless folks on Twitter who dispense thoughts about key lakes issues in 140 characters.

There are regular check-ins with colleagues of all stripes to see what they’ve heard.

It’s a never-ending benefit and burden that allows me to be over-prepared. That’s a requirement when I start to write. And more so when doing a live radio commentary where you can’t take a timeout to do a Google search.

Most of what I find is routine. Good information, but de rigeur. Maybe there’s a new wrinkle but not more than that.

Last week was different.

I read a piece by Don Scavia titled:Cheeseburgers, biofuels, and high fructose corn syrup are ruining the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and American’s health.

Scavia is a scientist, in case you couldn’t detect that from the title.

He is also the director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan and is well-known in the broader Great Lakes community.

Writing for his blog, The Conversation, Scavia chronicled where we’ve gone wrong in the decades-long fight against algae blooms. The backdrop was the Toledo water crisis from last August where 500,000 people went without drinking water for three days. Harmful algae blooms were the cause.

The article is rich and meant to challenge current thinking and conventional wisdom. Scavia asks why, post-Toledo, we are following the same path that hasn’t led to results. He cites “empirical evidence” to support his position – I told you, he’s a scientist.

There are few Great Lakes writings that I’d label must-read. Scavia’s Cheeseburgers.. is one. He’s focused on the long view, has uncommon candor and is not politically motivated.

Finding a gem of an article like Scavia’s is rare and makes worthwhile my daily slog through articles, tweets and collegial conversations.


Scavia has a fellow-traveler who also comments about environmental issues. She, too, has the candor gene.

Ann Alexander is an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in its Chicago office who is known for her successful legal wrangling of the algae issue.

Her NRDC blog posts often rail against the USEPA for dragging its feet on algae blooms. While Scavia’s writing reflects diplomacy, Alexander’s is more direct and she isn’t afraid to throw a sharp elbow when warranted.

Here’s proof: “EPA has a long and venerable history of being all talk and no action on the Gulf (of Mexico) Dead Zone,” Alexander wrote in March.

That statement applies to Lake Erie too.

No need to read between the lines there.

Algae blooms are the greatest threat to the Great Lakes (sorry Asian carp bashers) and our drinking water. EPA has a responsibility to protect it and Alexander has the courage to publicly call the agency out when it doesn’t.

That’s rare. Most Great Lakes environmental groups tip-toe around direct criticism of the EPA. Holding the purse-strings has its advantages.

The candor of Scavia and Alexander deserve more of your attention than I can provide here. Follow the links in this commentary to be enlightened.


I’m back to the grind of slogging through information hoping to find rare, candid thoughts like those produced by Scavia and Alexander.

No luck this week.

I spent two hours listening to an EPA Great Lakes restoration advisory board meeting where experts plotted Great Lakes restoration strategy for the next four years.

Discussion was along predictable lines within safe parameters.

The main event appeared to be a laborious give and take struggle on how to implement adaptive management techniques. The topic seemed more appropriate for academic circles, not professionals trying to drive an action plan that produces results.

No boats will be rocked by the advisory board’s recommendations.

Next I read an article that the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to approve $300 million next year for Great Lakes restoration. If I thought that would address the harmful algae bloom problem – the quality of drinking water – in a meaningful way I’d be doing cart wheels.

But don’t expect any gymnastics from me. Fixing the algae problem isn’t about money. Scavia exposes that canard in his Cheeseburgers article.

The smart group of Great Lakes advisers would have been better off using their time seeking advice from Scavia and Alexander.

Maybe then they could have provided meaningful counsel to the EPA, welcomed or not. That’s the candor I search for and that the region needs.

Lake Erie and Toledo are waiting.


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