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Speech to the International Association of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Mayors' Conference, Chicago, IL

Good afternoon, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about the Great Lakes.

I grew up near a Great Lake …the Great Salt Lake … it seemed so big. But now I learn it would take 25 Great Salt Lakes just to fill Lake Erie and that’s the smallest of the real Great Lakes.

I find great value and lots of charm in the cultures that surround water communities.

Several weeks ago I visited a Superfund site at New Bedford, Massachusetts. I arrived about an hour before the event started so I said to my colleagues, “let’s stop at that dock and look at the boats.”

I was wearing a business suit but left my coat in the car. As we approached, an older man, tipped back on his chair and leaning against a small shed, said, “It’s not for sale.”

“I don’t want to buy, just want to look,” I said.

We started to talk. Turns out the guy owns the place, as did his father before him and his father before him. He said, "You can call me Captain Leroy; that’s what people around here call me.”

Captain Leroy is 85 years old. He introduced me to his dog, Tramp, whose most distinguishing feature is a tattoo on his belly.

Then he said, “I came down to watch the fishing boats come in and to check on my mother.”

“Your mother?” My head started to do the math.

“Yep, she’s 102 years old, still lives right there in the house. You can meet her if you want to.”

I did want to. So, I met Mabel, Captain Leroy’s 102 year old mother, and her three cats. We talked about the changes she’d seen and the hardships of life on the water.

I had another interesting conversation that afternoon. As I left Captain Leroy’s place, I noticed a fisherman standing on the shore casting a lure. He stood with his back to a sign that said, “No Fishing” with a consumption warning about mercury.

“Catchin’ any?”

“No keepaas; caught a keepa last week; a 26 inch Striper (Stripaaa).”

The EPA Administrator came out in me; “I guess you know you’re supposed to limit the amount of fish eaten out of here because of its contaminated."

“My consumption's limited,” he said. “I just eat the keepaas."

I’m learning from all kinds of conversations as I’ve criss-crossed the Great Lakes states talking with people. With governors. With mayors. With environmentalists. With captains of charter boats, and with captains of commerce.

I’ve listened to people whose lives and livelihoods ebb and flow with the waters of these Great Lakes.

I am hearing a complex message.

I hear great pride in what has been accomplished: “I was here,” one person said, “when the river burned and the lake died.”

I also hear that we can do better: “We need to break down the silos,” another told me.

One of the people I’ve talked with is Jerry Dennis. I talked with him because he wrote a wonderful book … I hope you know it, it’s called The Living Great Lakes. Jerry Dennis talked with a lot of people himself as he researched his book, and now he’s talking to a lot more people as he travels around the Great Lakes promoting it.

Jerry’s book speaks of the remarkable progress of the past thirty years. There’s a fun account of a conversation he had with a group of “good ol' boys” sitting on a dock fishing in Detroit.

“Have the lakes improved,” Jerry asked them?

“Are you kidding (he used a different expletive) me? See those rocks … he pointed to the lake bottom … Been a long time since anybody’s seen bottom here.”

But, there is discontent too.

“The question everyone asks,” he told me, “is: What can I do?” There is, he says, “an undirected passion” for the Lakes.

People are looking for something to do.

“What do you tell them?” I asked him.

“I tell them to get involved,” he said. “To join a conservation group, or participate in a beach cleanup.”

No one knows how complex this is better than you do:

Two nations
Eight states
Tribal nations
Millions of land owners
Thousands of jurisdictions
International organizations
Air, land and water issues

This is clearly among the most complex environmental challenges.

It was, to some extent, complexity, some frustration, and a desire to accelerate that caused the Great Lakes Governors to come together with advocates, agencies and industries to accomplish what seemed to some to be an impossible task – to develop a consensus on priorities for the Great Lakes.

Governor Taft and Mayor Daley have shown great leadership. After two and a half years of work, Great Lakes protection now has the most basic blueprint in place, a place to build from. A short-term agenda was then submitted to the Congress to help guide immediate spending decisions. And then Governor Taft, joined by Mayor Daley as Chair of the Great Lakes Mayors, visited the White House.

The message they carried to President Bush was simple: building upon the Great Lakes blueprint would take presidential leadership. The federal government has to be part of the solution. President Bush quickly responded by issuing the Great Lakes Executive Order. The Executive Order essentially does two things: first, it directs the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to establish the Great Lakes Federal Task Force of nine Cabinet members, the Army Corps and the Council on Environmental Quality to better coordinate the federal effort.

The second part of the Executive Order conceives what the order refers to as a regional collaboration of national significance on the Great Lakes.

My purpose today is to give you a progress report.

Let me start by telling you what we are doing to get our federal house in order. Shortly after the Executive Order was issued, I convened at the White House the Great Lakes Federal Task Force. For the first time in history, the Secretaries of State, the Army, Commerce, Homeland Security, Interior, Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, plus EPA’s Administrator and the Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, all gathered in one place to discuss a coordinated approach to addressing Great Lakes issues.

A similar but expanded group has been formed among federal agencies at the regional level. In fact, later today here in Chicago, I will convene a combined meeting of the Task Force Work Group and the Regional Work Group.

Let me share an example of how the Task Force can work: two weeks ago, in Ohio, Governor Taft informed me of a complicated federal-state funding problem that threatened to derail a project critical to stopping the Asian Carp.

The Army Corps is building an electronic barrier to keep the carp out of the great Lakes. It’s a bit like those invisible fences suburbanites use to contain their dogs. Funding for the project came up short. I conveyed the problem to the Federal Task Force to solve. We’re going to get that barrier built. We’re still working out the details and it will take coordination… the kind that comes with a multi-agency effort.

I can report another piece of progress on behalf of the federal task force. Frankly, I think it’s safe to say that no one . . . no one . . . knows just how many federal, state, and private dollars are actually being spent protecting and improving the health of the Great Lakes Basin.

For some time there has been a need to do a crosscut inventory of the Great Lakes Programs and funding. Because of the Great Lakes Federal Task Force, that will now happen.

We’re determined to improve the efficiency and coordination of our work; to insure that the federal effort supports what the people who live and work here in the Great Lakes Basin are doing.

That brings me to the second part of the President’s Executive Order, establishing a regional collaboration of national significance.

My most prominent observation is that there are great collaborations taking place all over the Great Lakes:
  • The Great Lakes Restoration Fund is a great example. Gov. Tommy Thompson – twenty years ago – led creation of the fund, and it’s the only environmental endowment in the nation created by Governors.
  • The Water Annex process you will be discussing tomorrow is another. It is a textbook example of collaboration – two nations, multiple jurisdictions, NGOs, agriculture and industry -- all working together for the greater good of the Lakes.

Now these collaborations all need to be coordinated into a set of action plans – under your priorities.

The vision of this effort is not to re-do, but to re-double. We start with the priorities of the Great Lakes Governors and Mayors. We inventory what has been done. We ask ourselves how we can do it better.

Then we organize this into a region-wide action plan that fills in any missing pieces, sets a schedule, allocates resources to priorities, and provides for a cohesive management process.

This region needs to be able to say to with a unified voice to the President and Congress, “here is what we have done; here is what we need, and here is what we will do with it.”

Several steps need to be taken to organize the action plan.

I envision a meeting of conveners, what I euphemistically call a “Flags and Bagpipes” meeting. It will be a gathering of principals -- Governors, Mayors, Cabinet Members, Members of Congress, Ministers and tribal representatives – all gathered to declare their support of the Great Lakes and this regional collaboration. I anticipate that this can be organized in the next couple of months.

This is as much about coalescing as it is planning.

The conveners meeting will be include serious substance:
  • Workgroups will be formed to create action plans behind each of the nine Great Lakes Governors’ priorities.
  • A secretariat will be appointed.
  • A governance process will be drawn to organize the way for conclusions to be reached and for everyone to participate.

We need to make it clear that this effort of the governors, the mayors, and the federal government is the “Northbound Train,” If you want to be part of protecting and improving the Lakes, get on board.

Let me share a story: I had the privilege as governor of Utah to host the Winter Olympics. One of the perks of being governor is that you get really good seats. The night of the figure skating championship, I had a front row seat.

A sixteen-year old skater named Sarah Hughes skated out onto the ice. She was in fourth place. No one expected her to win.

There were 24,000 people in the arena that night and probably a billion watching from around the world. I was literally at eye level. I looked her straight in the eye and there was a sense that she was more relaxed than I could have imagined. The music started. It may have been that she was in 4th place and didn’t feel as though she was a serious contender. And she was going to skate for the pleasure of skating. She moved with such grace. The crowd instantly began to feel the rhythm of the music and of her movements. The music stopped. Her arms went back. Her head went up. It was clear that that was a performance of a champion.

The next day at a news conference, this sixteen year old girl who the day before the competition was studying for the SAT’s, made what I thought was a profound statement. She expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to skate in the Olympics. She said, “Some people never get a chance to skate the performance of their life, and I did.”

I would submit that in a very real sense, there are few generations who have the opportunity to work on a project of the size and importance of this one. This not only affects the lives of people in eight large states, but the entire Western Hemisphere.

We need to skate the performance of our lives. I have every confidence that we will.
Thank you.