Thank You, Kurt Erichsen
On Kurt Erichsen’s first day at TMACOG in 1984, his new boss told him to take his pick from a room full of empty desks. At that time, the Environment Department was barely operational. But the need for coordinated regional planning – for remediation of polluted rivers and for coordination of water treatment facilities – was clear. Kurt took the job and things have been looking up ever since.
A Legacy of Steady Improvement
With limited funds and a wide mandate to serve members, TMACOG’s role in environmental planning has always been fluid – sometimes leading, sometimes supporting, and sometimes, losing an opportunity but returning to the project years later. “You have to watch for opportunities,” Kurt said. He keeps priorities in mind and looks for new funds or new partnerships.
“Every accomplishment has been a partnership,” Kurt says. In the decades-long effort to restore the Ottawa River, partnerships formed and re-formed as incremental progress was made. When the EPA first documented harm to fish and the aquatic habitat, restoration seemed an overwhelming task. But the leaky landfills were sealed and the location of the worst of the contaminated sediments identified. In 2010 a huge dredging operation removed those sediments. In 2017 “do not eat” fishing advisories were removed. The improvement of the Ottawa River is a success and Kurt Erichsen was involved at every step. “TMACOG played a variety of roles in this long process,” said Kurt. “But eventually, our strongest role in became one of grantsmanship and public information,” as state and federal agencies managed the cleanup. Kurt said he cannot begin to estimate the dollar value of grants that he has managed in his career.
When the Maumee Bay State Park opened, people in Oregon were pleased to have new Lake Erie beaches. When dangerous levels of bacteria were discovered in the waters at the beaches, it was an unpleasant surprise. TMACOG partnered with the University of Toledo, the City of Oregon, and Lucas County to find the sources of the bacteria. When Berger Ditch was identified as the primary source, TMACOG helped partners fund septic system education projects and treatment wetlands to address the problem. “It’s often the case that TMACOG does the planning and helps secure the grants, and then governments take over to implement the project,” said Kurt. “I think that is appropriate and a good partnership.”
Other career success stories include helping the farming community implement best practices to reduce erosion and keep fertilizer in the fields. “We provide a watershed approach,” said Kurt. “That is the best way to address agricultural issues and no other agency is organized the way TMACOG is.” TMACOG’s stormwater management program grew out of the agricultural projects. Communities decided that they needed to stay in touch with each other to manage stormwater as a region. The Stormwater Coalition now has 24 jurisdictional members in Wood and Lucas county in a contiguous area.
Strong Partnerships Advance Regional Development
Under Kurt’s leadership the region has strong partnerships among academics, agencies, governments, and business. This community of professionals was created by mutual respect and commitment to the work.
Kurt cites the advice and teamwork of many TMACOG members as crucial to successful projects. Years ago, Ottawa County Commissioner Jim Sass needed TMACOG’s help improving wastewater in a Portage Township. The partnership of Sass and Erichsen resulted in significant improvements that increased economic development in the area. Steve Arndt, who was a village council member before becoming County Commissioner and State Representative, was a valuable advisor. Ken Fallows, who was mayor of Haskins for 20 years served as the chair of TMACOG’s Environmental Council and became a close working partner. “I have had excellent working relationships with so many men and women. We have great public servants in our region.”
Current TMACOG Leadership
Lucas County Commissioner Carol Contrada is the current chair of the Water Quality Council and past chair of TMACOG. She says, “Kurt is a master of the practical and the profound. He gets that the work is in the details.” She adds, “When I learned he was an artist, it made sense to me. He has an artist’s perspective: taking care, attention to detail, and a sense of humor.” She cites the Areawide Water Quality Management Act (the 208 Plan) as an example of creative governance. “Kurt’s management of the 208 Plan is unique in the country. He envisioned the impact it could have on our communities and he has used the plan expertly.”
Working steadily and doggedly and sometimes without any dedicated funding at all, Kurt has managed the 208 Plan for more than 30 years. This constantly changing document describes how communities in five counties in Ohio and Michigan agree to manage the region’s sewer lines, wastewater treatment plants, and septic systems. While the 208 Plan is only a part of Kurt’s work, his attitude about it demonstrates Kurt’s philosophy:
It’s hard to overstate Kurt’s local knowledge and professional acumen. TMACOG President Tim W. Brown says, “I have known Kurt since first becoming county commissioner in 1997. It has been a true honor to actually get to work on the same team with him. His enormous impact on the health and well-being of our region is impossible to quantify. Kurt’s brilliance will be sorely missed, with 33 years on the job, but 100 years of knowledge and expertise!”
Bill Best, TMACOG vice president of finance & administration, says “Having worked with Kurt for over 27 years, he is much more than simply a highly trusted colleague. His breadth of knowledge is incredible and I find his sense of humor remarkable. I will truly miss working with him.”
Kurt says that he’s looking forward to spending more time drawing and reading. He has always had a side career in cartooning and will spend more time at it. He also is looking forward to traveling more without having to work around committee meetings.