Featured Advocate: Mike Shriberg, NWF Great Lakes Regional Center

Ann Arbor, MIHeadshot of Mike Shriberg

The National Wildlife Federation unites all Americans to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly changing world. The Great Lakes Regional Center (GLRC) of the National Wildlife Federation “works on critical national and regional water resource issues with a particular focus on protecting and restoring our Great Lakes and other waterbodies. Protecting water also means protecting the health and quality of the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems as well as the human communities that depend upon them.”

This interview was conducted on February 25, 2022. It has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.  

River Network (RN): To get started, can you give me a brief introduction to who you are, your role at National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, and how you first got involved with drinking water issues?

Mike Shriberg: I’m Mike Shriberg and I’m the Great Lakes Regional Center’s Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation. I run our regional program- that’s six states- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio- and we’ve got a staff of about 25 folks here in the region. 

We’d always done small bits on drinking water, but if we’re honest about it, the Flint water crisis was kind of the shot across the bow for us. We had been working in different communities and in different areas, prior to this, but when that water crisis came about, National Wildlife Federation, particularly the Great Lakes Region Center, like many organizations, looked at ourselves and said, “Well, what is our role in this? How are we complicit, first of all, in letting this happen? What was our response? Where do we want to be in the future, working on drinking water issue?” We had done some work within the community, and as part of our long-standing urban initiatives, but it led to us doing a deeper dive into drinking water issues, overall.  

The connection between water issues and wildlife is a little less direct than some of the other things we work on, but of course the connections between water and human health are extraordinarily strong. Much of our work in this region is on Great Lakes water policy and, if you look at the number one reason that people care about the Great Lakes, it is because it provides drinking water to 40 million people. So, it’s only natural that we started to get into that role. 

RN: The Flint Water Crisis is a common thread, a turning point for many organizations that previously were not giving as much direct attention to drinking water, so kudos to all of you for making that pivot. There are many facets related to clean drinking water, including issues of access, affordability, quality and safety. Where do you focus your work? 

MS: Most of our work is on the access and affordability front. We work a lot at the federal level and ensuring that funds are coming for drinking water and making sure that those dollars are steered towards the right places, and the places that communities who are struggling with access and affordability are most interested in. 

Regarding safety, we are working quite a bit on lead pipe removal and again at the funding level and partnering with communities, those are our primary areas. 

RN: Access to clean drinking water intersects with public health, environmental justice, climate resiliency, and other issues tied to our health and well-being, like housing. How does your work fit into these broader systems? 

MS: To us, particularly on the environmental justice front, it has to start with clean drinking water. One of our programs is really tied in with clean drinking water but we don’t often talk about it that waywe work with religious institutions with fiscal footprints, schools, and other anchor institutions to put in rain gardens and other natural infrastructure. It’s obviously directly mission related: builds wildlife habitat, it creates outdoor spaces. We do this in urban, under resourced areas, but of course it directly ties to clean drinking water as well and to that public health and justice framework. We usually talk about it in that frame of health, the more people have access to green spaces and high quality outdoor areas … and all those tie in with climate resiliency. These all go hand in hand- you can’t have environmental justice without having clean, safe affordable drinking water it’s a fundamental right.

RN: Are there other organizations that you’ve partnered with and built effective coalitions with? If so, what work did you do to build trust, designate roles and responsibilities, and successfully come together, specifically around issues of drinking water? 

MS: I’ll start with the most obvious one- we are the staff co-leads for the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition, so we’ve got a team that works on that. HOW is the main convening area for the NGOs in the region and I mentioned that because the Healing Our Waters Coalition did not extensively work on drinking water until recently and now I would say that might be a primary focus. That might even have more emphasis than the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative right now. Our staff in NWF and National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) (the other staff leads for the coalition) often convening the 160-170 other NGOs in the region that care about Great Lakes issues and working on drinking water. There’s this broader network that we’ve now been utilizing and focusing in on drinking water in a way that had never been done before, because we’ve mostly focused on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.  

Outside of HOW I think the partnerships that NWS has built are probably best encapsulated into a report that stemmed from a series of five roundtables, three with more urban leaders and two with more rural leaders, looking at how this infusion of federal dollars for drinking water could best be utilized on the ground.  

Because we’ve got the largest investment in drinking water infrastructure in the history of the US coming. But if it’s not connected to what the needs are from the frontline communities, we’re actually not going to see the benefits that we should. We’ve been playing this translational role between the frontline communities and the policy community within the NGO world, as well as with our decision makers, and that involves working with folks like We the People of Detroit and Milwaukee Water Commons, Junction Coalition. Working with frontline leaders in each of the key cities, and in some of the rural areas around the Great Lakes, trying to help translate some of their great work in the front line into a framework to utilize these funds effectively. That’s ongoing work that we’re real excited about.

For NWF, we tend to be conveners- like the Great Lakes Business Network, Healing Our Waters Coalition, and all these different constituencies. For us it’s about building trust, being clear about roles, and being really honest facilitators of processes so that people’s voices are heard and recognized.  

RN: What have been the biggest hurdles or challenges facing your organization as you work on drinking water issues?  

MS: I think capacity has been one. Our funding sources tend to be a lagging indicator of interest and where things are headed, a lot of our capacity is dedicated towards water policy issues, whereas a lot of our interest and a lot of what we’re hearing on the ground, is towards drinking water, so there’s that piece. And the capacity of our own staff- drinking water’s a very different set of laws, it’s a different set of issues. We are, for example, hiring somebody right now that’s going to be focused in on drinking water issues and looking for that particular skill set. We’re learning as we go but it’s important to have people with expertise on that.  

The other thing is in this area is a bit hard to describe. It’s harder to have certain clear asks. On a lot of the policy issues we work on, for example on the Line Five oil pipeline, the ask is really clear, right? That pipeline is either going to be in or it’s not. Or like invasive carp- that barrier is going to be built or it’s not going to be built, the carp will be in the Great Lakes or not. With drinking water there’s so many shades of grey that it’s pretty hard sometimes to hone in on what exactly is it that we want to do, what exactly is it that we’re asking? I think it’s harder from an advocacy front to do that, and that’s been a barrier for us. 

RN: Going back a bit, have you worked at all with utilities on trying to build relationships with them? I know that is an area that many organizations have a hard time- building those relationships with utilities to advocate at a more local level around drinking waters issues. 

MS: We have a project going right now with We the People of Detroit and Freshwater Future; we are trying to work with utilities to really understand, and this is Michigan-specific, but really understand how implementing affordability programs and programs that guarantee that water isn’t shut off would impact the bottom lines- or not- of utilities. Frankly we’ve seen a lot of overblown claims from water utilities that somehow affordability programs and stopping water shut offs are going to cause rate increases for others. The data don’t bear that out that we’ve seen so far, and so there are utilities that we are working with that have been very supportive and they’re looking for clear ways to achieve water affordability and water justice. There are others that are going to battle tooth and nail, they’re not giving any data on what they’re actually doing, they’re just saying, “Nope, can’t do it.” Those tend to be some more adversarial relationships, and then we have some in between. 

We are working with them, but there are times when we’re working in oppositional as well. The disparity of power, the water utilities have the power to do this. But one thing that I think is interesting right now is that this massive amount of funding that’s coming in actually gives our advocates more leverage than we’ve ever had. These utilities are getting enormous sums of money, whether it’s for lead pipe replacement and all those other pieces. I think as advocates, we have to extract the price from them of water affordability over the long term. What I have observed, is that the utilities are listening more right now and they’re in more of a partnership mode because of the range of funding that’s going in. That doesn’t apply across the board, but I think there’s this openness to partnerships that we hadn’t seen as much before and that’s simply because the volume of resources coming in are enormous and water utilities are lining up to get their share. That’s an opportunity for us as advocates. 

RN: What are the major campaigns or policy priorities that you’re currently working on? What kind of strategies are you using to advance your goals? 

MS: We just updated our policy priorities for 2022. Stopping water shutoffs: we keep hearing that from our partners and that’s going to be a high priority for us. PFAS: we are trying to stop additional sources of PFAS contamination from firefighting foam and some of the Department of Defense activities, but it’s mostly about getting the dollars for cleanup. And not just the dollars, because there are some coming through the infrastructure bill and elsewhere, but it’s also ensuring that, particularly the Department of Defense, takes duck responsibility for contamination. We’re deeply engaged in Michigan, for example, at the former Wurtsmith Air Force base. Right now we’re really trying to get them to step up and say, “We are responsible for this problem and we’re going to do everything we can to clean up.” What we’ve seen so far is that the Air Force is trying to dodge responsibility and do the absolute minimum. They’re actually not even adhering to Michigan’s clean-up standards because they’re saying, “we’re exempt, we’re going to adhere to the lower federal standards.” 

So, a lot of accountability work on PFAS. I think the other big piece is around the SRF dollars, over the next five years the challenge is the equitable and effective implementation and distribution of those dollars and that’s where a lot of our effort and energy is going to go. Because how the states set up these rules and how they implement them and which communities can get access to them is going to make all the difference in the world over the next five years. We’re working both kind of at the individual level with frontline groups and municipalities and utilities. But more at sort of that policy level at the state to set the right framework for that. 

Those are some of our biggest pieces and I’ll highlight again that the Roundtable report includes a long set of recommendations for different stakeholders and that’s kind of our roadmap to where we’re going to be spending our time over the next five years as well.

RN: What’s your biggest accomplishment to date? What aspect of your work are you most proud of? 

MS: This is a shared accomplishment like everything else that we do, but I would say, we’ve got the biggest investment in drinking water infrastructure in our nation’s history right now. 

And so that’s both an accomplishment and we’re proud of that, and we’re proud to be partnered with that, but I think I’m even more excited about working on the utilization of that for maximum impact. I hope we’ll look back five years from now, when those funds have been used, to say that we fundamentally transformed the drinking water system in this country to be equitable, to be efficient, and to provide clean, safe drinking water for all.  

We have this generational opportunity right now. And I’m proud that NWF, as a traditional big green group, as a wildlife oriented group- and to actually use some of the political capital that we’ve built up over the over the years, the institutional knowledge or our staff in DC. to be focused on this drinking water issue is something I am inherently proud of, I think it’s hopefully making a big difference in helping to bring in other partners and other voices as well.