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Great Lakes Czar

   An interview with the man Obama’s hired to clean up the lakes 
Chicagoan Cameron Davis recently started his new job as special advisor to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency overseeing its Great Lakes restoration plan. President Barack Obama’s 2010 budget seeks $475 million in new spending on the Great Lakes. Davis has worked for the last 23 years, first as a volunteer and then as an administrator, for the Alliance for the Great Lakes, previously known as the Lake Michigan Federation, an organization that seeks to conserve and restore the Great Lakes, the world's largest freshwater resource, through policy, education and local efforts. Davis talked to Chicago Life in his final days as the Alliance president and CEO about the Great Lakes, what these wonderful bodies of water are facing and what can be done to preserve and enhance them for future generations.

Where did your interest in the Great Lakes start?
I was born in Evanston and grew up in Wilmette. As a boy, my brother, sister and I would go on picnics down at the beach, and I always used to marvel at the power of Lake Michigan and the serenity of it. I remember down at that beach, my dad would always pick up trash that he found on the beach when everyone else would walk by it and that always stuck in my head. That was part of the inspiration for the Adopt-A-Beach program. As a little six-year-old kid, it was a very stark contrast. Here’s this litter that everyone is walking by, and here is a man whom I admire who is picking up. He doesn’t have to do it.

How does Canada compare to the United States in terms of Great Lakes clean-up efforts?
Canada and the U.S. are equal partners in making sure the Great Lakes are tended so they can be handed to the next generation. Neither country can do the job on its own.

What threats arise from exotic species coming through the St. Lawrence Seaway? What's being done or will be done to prevent these species from living in the Great Lakes?   
Pest species can get into the Great Lakes through the ballast tanks of ships, artificially created connecting waterways, baitfish and other routes. Once some of these species get into the Great Lakes, it’s a little like a virus making its way through a computer system that doesn’t have anti-virus software. The Great Lakes are a fragile and finely tuned system. Once new organisms are introduced, it can cause chain reactions that can have devastating impacts on jobs, recreation and ecology.

What do we know about the amount of hormones in the Great Lakes?
There’s a new generation of materials we need to track, like medications. Most of our wastewater treatment systems were built a while ago and never really designed to remove pain relievers, hormones, psycho-pharmaceuticals and others. Some are showing impacts on aquatic organisms in tests. The Alliance for the Great Lakes has done a lot of work to promote drug take-back programs—instead of flushing or throwing them out—but we need to go even further and start to look at measures that prevent medications from showing up in our waterways in the first place.

What are the biggest threats to the Great Lakes?
The biggest threat facing the Great Lakes isn’t actually any one particular issue. The biggest threat is the perception that the Great Lakes are so big and invincible that they can handle anything we throw at—or in—them. 

Is there really a way to balance business and environmental concerns?
This assumes that business and environmental concerns sit on either end of the seesaw—or teeter-totter if you grew up here in the Midwest. They don’t. I think of things not so much in terms of businesses versus other entities, but more in terms of whether we’re going to be shortsighted or take the long view. We need to provide for the Great Lakes of today so that the Great Lakes can provide jobs, recreation and renewal for the next generation.

Are there specific problems that impact Lake Michigan more than the other Great Lakes?
Generally, Lake Erie is the most sensitive of the five lakes.

Published: August 09, 2009
Issue: Fall 2009 Water Issue