New Tool for the Tackle Box: An Algal Bloom Tracker

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

An angler casts his line out into Lake Erie near an algal bloom. Credit: Jeff Reutter
An angler casts his line out into Lake Erie near an algal bloom. Credit: Jeff Reutter

Water condition forecasts developed by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and University of Michigan’s Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) could help recreational anglers, charter boat businesses and other folks around Lake Erie prepare in advance for algal blooms.

Since 2014, GLERL and CIGLR have tested an experimental harmful algal bloom (HAB) tracker program on the GLERL website, designed primarily around the needs of drinking water managers. NOAA’s Lake Erie HAB forecasting bulletin, which also launched experimentally in 2014, was bumped up to a full-fledged operational project in June.

Recent research by Devin Gill, stakeholder engagement specialist with CIGLR, says that the tracker tool could be made more helpful for the recreational fishing industry. Gill held focus group sessions and met with charter boat captains and recreational anglers from Wyandotte, Michigan, to Erie, Pennsylvania to gather input.

“Everyone agreed that HABs are gross, stinky, and that they don’t enjoy fishing in them,” Gill said. “That was the primary reason they prefer to not fish in them and to try and find clear water.”

Going into HABs means getting algae slime on a boat and having to go slower in the water. Fish also can accumulate microcystins, a toxin associated with harmful algal blooms.

The HAB tracker uses color coding on maps to indicate where blooms are, how severe they are and where they are likely to move in the coming days. Gill said most anglers responded positively to the tool, but the information was somewhat abstract for her focus groups, and additional information is needed to help anglers interpret what the color coding means. One idea being considered is adding a photo reference guide to show what each color means on the ground, though nothing has been decided yet. She also found that more work was needed to get the word out about the tracker: of 41 participants, only 11 had heard of the tracker, and only four had tried to use it.

Using the HAB tracker program, a forecast image from Aug. 18, 2016, was taken that shows a harmful algal bloom on western Lake Erie with arrows indicating the expected surface water movement in coming days, which would influence where the bloom moves and spreads. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Using the HAB tracker program, a forecast image from Aug. 18, 2016, was taken that shows a harmful algal bloom on western Lake Erie with arrows indicating the expected surface water movement in coming days, which would influence where the bloom moves and spreads. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Gill said researchers are exploring additional information to include, like a photo library of the blooms at varying concentrations, to help anglers and boaters interpret conditions and whether they want to go on the water. Beyond that, more outreach is necessary to build trust with managers and researchers. She said several participants weren’t aware of efforts to try and deal with the causes of the blooms, and getting a better idea of the wants and needs of users can make for a stronger forecast program. Since the recreational fishing industry is worth US$2 billion a year in Ohio alone, it’s important to local economies that the forecast be helpful to anglers.

“I think the HAB tracker has the potential to show people that even though there’s a bloom occurring on Lake Erie, there are pockets of clear water,” Gill said. “The bloom isn’t everywhere – it’s not blanketing the lake unless it’s a bad season.”

Gill added that while CIGLR is working to develop a formal way for the public to give feedback and thoughts on the HAB tracker, in the meantime they can contact her at deving@umich.edu.

As of June 2, NOAA has noted that since May was a wet month in the region, the amount of phosphorus washing into western Lake Erie from the Maumee River has exceeded the amounts seen in mild bloom years. There is uncertainty regarding the final amount of phosphorus that will end up in Lake Erie, which in turn feeds the algal blooms in the late summer. NOAA releases regular bulletins updating HAB conditions and forecasts on the lake.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

From Nutrients to Climate Change – An Update on the IJC’s Water Quality Board Projects

By IJC staff

A boat on Lake Erie. Credit: US Department of Agriculture
A boat on Lake Erie. Credit: US Department of Agriculture

The International Joint Commission’s (IJC) Great Lakes Water Quality Board is investigating current issues and trying to anticipate future problems when it comes to nutrients, the decommissioning of nuclear power facilities, protecting wetlands, and minimizing the impacts from flame retardants as well as climate change. Work also has begun on a new public opinion poll.

The board provides advice to the Commission on issues that can impact the quality of the Great Lakes and recommends approaches to address the problems. Several board work groups are seeking to answer a variety of questions:

How can programs and policies be strengthened to prevent and reduce nutrients from entering the Great Lakes?

The board recently began a project to evaluate how existing regulations, rules, policies and practices in the Great Lakes are applied to the use, management, storage and disposal of manure from animal feeding operations. Manure from these large farms, also called combined animal feeding operations or CAFOs, can contribute pollutants to the lakes, particularly nutrients, depending on the amounts that are land-applied and used as a source of fertilizer in crop production. This project is expected to be complete by the summer of 2018.

The work follows an August 2016 board report that included recommendations on how watershed management plans (plans that outline actions and goals to manage the land, water and resources within a specified area for a healthy ecosystem) should be used to manage nutrient pollution in Lake Erie.

In early 2017, a workshop and webinar were held to further explore the recommendations of this report, by seeking feedback and insights from those involved in watershed planning and implementation.  A report on this work is expected in late summer 2017.

Do the processes for closure of nuclear power plants adequately consider potential impacts of future radioactive releases? 

The Great Lakes region has a number of nuclear facilities in the area or near the shores. This includes nuclear power plants that are nearing the end of their expected life or being considered for closure or “decommissioning.” By summer 2018, the board hopes to have advice and recommendations on actions needed to eliminate and reduce potential threats to the Great Lakes from the decommissioning of nuclear facilities.

What actions can be taken to achieve a net gain of wetland habitat in the Great Lakes basin?

Wetlands help protect and maintain Great Lakes aquatic ecosystems by filtering pollutants and sediments, storing nutrients, reducing flooding and erosion, and providing food and habitat for fish and wildlife. One of the commitments under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA)  is to achieve a net gain of habitat, including wetlands. The board is researching the issue to develop recommendations on actions that can be taken to assist in protecting and restoring wetland habitats. The Great Lakes basin has lost 50 percent of its wetlands since settlement began, from agricultural, industrial and residential development. This project is expected to be complete in early 2018.

A wetland restoration project in New York. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
A wetland restoration project in New York. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

How are PBDE-containing products handled at their end-of-life and are the actions taken by governments and other institutions adequate to minimize the release of these chemicals to the environment? 

Since the 1970s, flame retardants such as PBDEs have been added to a wide range of products including carpeting, mattresses, furniture and electronics, as a means for complying with consumer safety standards. Numerous studies have raised concerns about the persistence of these chemicals in the environment and harmful effects on humans and wildlife. While efforts have been made over the past two decades to phase-out the manufacture of these chemicals, there are still substantial quantities of products containing PBDEs that are used in the Great Lakes basin.

In March 2016, the board produced a report that provided advice on strategies and actions to minimize and prevent the release of PBDEs from the products that contain them. The Commission solicited public comment on the board report in the summer of 2016 and issued a Commission report with recommendations to the governments in November 2016. Further work has been undertaken by the board, by way of a binational workshop last February, to obtain insights from experts on solutions to finding alternatives to using PBDEs and best practices for the end-of-life management of PBDE-containing products. The findings and recommendations from this work are expected to be finished in late summer 2017.

What actions by governments are being undertaken to address climate change impacts? How can these actions and programs be strengthened?

The board released a report in January 2017 on a culmination of activities to answer these questions. Climate change in the Great Lakes is expected to impact the amount, frequency and intensity of storms; increase air and water temperatures; and decrease ice cover. These changes can adversely impact the physical, chemical and biological quality of the Great Lakes ecosystem through intensified erosion, sediment and nutrient loading, loss of wetlands, and loss of fish habitat. The report provides strategies and approaches to adapt to various impacts that climate change will have on the Great Lakes region.  The Commission endorsed two board recommendations in its draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report, released in January 2017.

What gaps exist in people’s understanding and awareness of Great Lakes issues and the role that various actors play in protecting them?

The board conducted its first Binational Great Lakes Poll in 2014. The purpose of the poll is to raise awareness about Great Lakes water quality and assess public perceptions about water quality and who is responsible for protecting the lakes. Round two of the poll is planned to occur in late 2017 with the results released in the first quarter of 2018.  As with the first survey, the results of round two will be shared with policymakers, media, the public and other stakeholders. Once there is an understanding of where these knowledge gaps exist, specific communication products and messages can be developed to improve awareness and inspire action.

Overall Condition of Great Lakes ‘Fair and Unchanging‘

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

The condition of Great Lakes beaches, like this one on Lake Huron near Oscoda, Michigan, range from good-to-fair, according to a Canada-US report. Credit: BB and HH
The condition of Great Lakes beaches, like this one on Lake Huron near Oscoda, Michigan, range from good-to-fair, according to a Canada-US report. Credit: BB and HH

Though progress has been made to restore and protect the ecological condition of the Great Lakes, the impacts of excess nutrients and invasive species continue to affect the region, according to a new 2017 State of the Great Lakes Highlights report from Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The report assesses how the Great Lakes are doing using nine indicators based on objectives of the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: drinking water, beaches, fish consumption, toxic chemicals, habitats and species, nutrients and algae, invasive species, groundwater quality, and watershed impacts and climate trends. Scientists and other experts interpret the data to determine if these indicators are in good, fair or poor shape, and if they’re improving, deteriorating or are largely unchanging. A technical report on how each conclusion was reached will be released at a later date, according to EPA and ECCC.

On the positive side, the report indicates that the quality of drinking water from the Great Lakes is good, and is staying that way, as long as it’s treated. That water is tested on microbial, radiological and chemical parameters to determine if it’s safe; the data used was from 2012-2014. Ontario and the eight Great Lakes states all use different methods to determine water quality, but the overall conclusion is that water quality standards were met for the vast majority of the applicable population.

Beach conditions range from good to fair in the 2011-2014 reporting period, depending on location, though they were found to be in poor shape and deteriorating (compared to the 2008-2010 period) along Lake Erie beaches in both countries. This is due in part to E. coli fecal bacteria, which can make its way to the waterfront from wastewater treatment plants, storm runoff, malfunctioning septic systems and large flocks of birds.

An overall assessment of the Great Lakes for each indicator. Credit: State of the Great Lakes Highlights report
An overall assessment of the Great Lakes for each indicator. Credit: State of the Great Lakes Highlights report

For toxic chemicals, the lakes are in fair shape with localized areas of contaminated sediment, and trends suggest the lakes are either improving or unchanged over 40 years of monitoring.

On the flip side, invasive species are continuing to have a negative impact, with an overall “poor and deteriorating” trend. While only one new non-native aquatic species has been found since 2006 – a type of zooplankton – invasives already in the lakes have continued to cause problems where they’ve been established. Sea lampreys continue to prey on native fish despite the recent success of control measures.

Zebra and quagga mussels continue to dominate the bottom-dwelling ecosystem and impact plankton communities throughout the lakes. Five terrestrial invasive species – Phragmites, emerald ash borer ,  purple loosestrife, garlic mustard and Asian long-horned beetle – were collectively found to be widely distributed and expanding their ranges. They are a significant factor in the negative assessment of invasive species since they can degrade water quality and habitat.

Cladophora mats, like these in Lake Michigan off the Sleeping Bear Dunes, can overtake swaths of the lakes thanks to nutrient pollution and invasive mussels clarifying the water. Credit: R. Whitman, US Geological Survey
Cladophora mats, like these in Lake Michigan off the Sleeping Bear Dunes, can overtake swaths of the lakes thanks to nutrient pollution and invasive mussels clarifying the water. Credit: R. Whitman, US Geological Survey

Phosphorus, nutrients and algal blooms are considered “fair” in the Great Lakes overall, but conditions are either unchanging or deteriorating, depending on the lake. Nutrient concentrations are worsening in all lakes but Superior, and the green algae Cladophora – which can cause beach fouling and clog water intakes – is prevalent in Lakes Michigan, Erie and Ontario. Harmful algal blooms are poor and worsening on Lake Erie, and fair and worsening on Lake Ontario.

Other indicators used for the report are overall fair and unchanging. On fish consumption, all lakes are considered fair – with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and mercury concentrations declining in Lakes Superior, Michigan and Ontario but either stable or slightly increasing in Erie and Huron.

Habitat conditions and the health of specific species populations are variable across the basin, being good in some areas and in bad shape elsewhere. Wetlands are being restored in some areas but suffering from nutrient runoff and sedimentation elsewhere. Despite setbacks from invasive frog-bit and water chestnut plants, there have been improvements to wetland fish species diversity across the board. The state of the aquatic food web is a mixed bag; mussels are causing phytoplankton conditions to deteriorate in Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie, and the small shrimp-like Diporeia species has suffered in those lakes and Ontario – possibly because of mussels. Lake sturgeon populations are poor but improving, and other major fish species are either fair or good, but largely unchanging.

On watershed impacts and climate trends, some lakes are faring better than others. Erie is in poor shape on three sub-indicators – forest cover, land cover and watershed stressors – while Ontario is in poor shape on watershed stressors and hardened shoreline development. Development can exacerbate nutrient runoff problems and other pollutants. Climate trends suggest more precipitation, less winter ice cover and increases in summer water temperatures may continue. These in turn could impact the amount of habitat available for species, allow invasive species to push further north into historically cooler areas, and lead to extended growing seasons – and thus potentially more increases in runoff.

A State of the Great Lakes 2017 Technical Report will be released soon, according to ECCC and EPA.

Previous State of the Great Lakes reports can be found on the US Environmental Protection Agency and Government of Canada Publications websites.

The invasive aquatic plant European frog-bit, pictured here from Lake St. Frances off the St. Lawrence River, can choke out native plants and destroy habitat for fish and other species. Credit: Denis-Carl Robidoux
The invasive aquatic plant European frog-bit, pictured here from Lake St. Frances off the St. Lawrence River, can choke out native plants and destroy habitat for fish and other species. Credit: Denis-Carl Robidoux

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Great Lakes Restoration Efforts Continue to Help Grow Region’s Economy

By Matthew A. McKenna, Northeast-Midwest Institute

The Ashtabula River in Ohio was cleaned up with help from $1.5 million in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding. Credit: GreatLakesGreatImpact.org
The Ashtabula River in Ohio was cleaned up with help from $1.5 million in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding. Credit: GreatLakesGreatImpact.org

The Great Lakes-St Lawrence region plays a pivotal role in the economies of Canada and the United States. It was responsible for US$5.8 trillion in economic activity in 2014 alone. If the Great Lakes-St Lawrence region were considered as a single country, it would rank as the third largest global economy, just behind the US and China.

Containing 85 percent of North America’s freshwater, residents of the region depend on the lakes as a critical resource for their physical health and economic productivity. The Great Lakes support a $12.9 billion dollar tourism industry, and serve as a fishery valued at more than $7 billion a year. The lakes also serve as the primary source of drinking water for more than 40 million people and hold significant intrinsic value as a recreational destination for people around the world.

One of the greatest drivers for the continued growth of the Great Lakes economy has been an emphasis on their environmental cleanup and restoration. Over the years, the lakes have and continue to face many environmental difficulties such as the threat of new invasive species, like Asian carp; continued pollution from toxic waste; the loss of wetlands and other native habitat; and the growth of harmful algal blooms (HABs) from increased nutrient runoff.

Key programs such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) in the US have provided critical new investments to the lakes, both environmentally and economically. GLRI has been essential in helping to clean up toxic Areas of Concern (AOC) in the US, preventing the introduction of new invasive species, restoring critical habitat and wetlands, and providing new conservation programs to help curtail the growth of HABs.

In its draft first Triennial Assessment of Progress released in January, the IJC notes that roughly one-third of the annual $300 million US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding has been directed toward AOC cleanup. Three US AOCs have been delisted in this work cycle, for a total of four delisted US AOCs.

An example of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects, including funding to a handful of projects by Environment Canada. Credit: GLRI Report, June 2016; GLRI spreadsheet
An example of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative projects, including funding to a handful of projects by Environment Canada. Credit: GLRI Report, June 2016; GLRI spreadsheet

Through the restoration of hundreds of thousands of acres of fish and wildlife habitat and implementation of new conservation programs on farm lands, Great Lakes residents have seen tremendous financial benefits from these concentrated efforts, including more than 1.5 million jobs and $60 billion in wages each year. Directing more than $2 billion in federal funding to the region since 2010, the GLRI has helped improve the quality of life for residents who live in the basin, while also growing the economy by cleaning up pollutants and toxins that have been left untouched for decades from a heavy manufacturing and industry base that has been present in the region for more than 100 years.

Canada has also devoted significant resources to Great Lakes restoration efforts. Through actions such as an annual allocation of CDN$8 million a year to restore Great Lakes AOCs, a five-year investment of $43.8 million to combat aquatic invasive species through 2021, $54.8 million to address nonpoint source pollution to the Great Lakes stemming from the agriculture sector since 2013, and $6.5 million to improve fish and wildlife habitat through the National Wetland Conservation Fund (NWCF), the Canadian government has focused its cleanup efforts to improve the health of the Great Lakes, while also strengthening their economy.

The US Congress took an important step at the end of 2016 to keep the region moving forward by reauthorizing the GLRI at US$300 million a year over the next five years. However, the Trump administration has since proposed to fully eliminate GLRI in Fiscal Year 2018. While Congress provided the full $300 million in an omnibus bill that funds the federal government through Sept. 30, the upcoming 2018 budget cycle will be essential to preserving federal support to clean up the Great Lakes, as Canada and the US agreed to under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement .

A shoreline before and after restoration in the St. Clair River Area of Concern. Credit: USEPA
A shoreline before and after restoration in the St. Clair River Area of Concern. Credit: USEPA

Additionally, another threat to Great Lakes restoration efforts are the administration’s proposed 2018 cuts to key federal departments and agencies’ base budgets, like a 31 percent reduction to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a 12 percent cut to the Interior Department.  If approved by Congress, these cuts would impact the GLRI, as GLRI funds are meant to supplement federal agencies’ budgets to tackle the large environmental problems facing the lakes.

Matthew A. McKenna is director of the Great Lakes Washington Program at the Northeast-Midwest Institute.

Meet the Eight Artists: Great Art for Great Lakes Across Ontario

By Laura Palumbo, Waterlution

Great Art for Great Lakes (GAGL) has commissioned eight artists across Ontario to work with the public on participatory artworks that celebrate our iconic Great Lakes.

This spring, GAGL is visiting Kingston, Hamilton, Mississauga, Sudbury-Manitoulin, Thunder Bay, Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Owen Sound and Toronto to hold community-driven, free events that introduce local artists and explain how the public will be involved in creating collaborative works of art.

A map of the communities that GAGL holding events in 2017. Credit: Waterlution
A map of the communities that GAGL holding events in 2017. Credit: Waterlution

Great Art for Great Lakes is part of a larger initiative called Greatness: The Great Lakes Project, which began at a 2015 roundtable convened by Ontario’s lieutenant governor. The participants, drawn from business, the arts, science and sports, resolved that “a bold and noble initiative” could make the Great Lakes a powerful symbol of “greatness” for the basin’s 40 million residents in Canada and the United States.

Artist Nicole Clouston. Credit: Waterlution

The eight artists selected begin with Nicole Clouston, whose “Lake Ontario Portrait” will create a wall-based sculpture that takes mud as its medium.

“Community members will be invited to bring a sample of mud from a location along the lake that is meaningful to them,” as explained on a meet the artists page. “The mud will then be place in clear prisms, along with nutrients that encourage microbial growth. Once exposed to light, the microbial life naturally present in the mud will begin to flourish, becoming visible in the form of brightly coloured marbling. Each sculpture will grow differently, featuring different tones, depending on the location along the lake it was collected from.”

Other artists include:

  • Andy Berg, who will engage the community to collectively sculpt a low-relief ceramic wall work titled Aqua Viva, to be housed in the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning.
  • Julieanne Steedman, who “looks forward to working with the local community to create meaningful artwork that will share history, build connections and tell a story; the story that the lake has to share. This collaborative work will celebrate the small truths and hidden miracles of our northern environment – its history, people, and landscape.”
  • Vanessa Logan, whose work draws on vintage and antique ephemera – physical reminders of the past that she reconstitutes into sculpture or composed images.
  • Julia White, who will create an installation of WATER Columns, laser-cut steel sculptures lit from within with watery blue light.
  • John Williams and Jill Joseph, who will work on a tree “formed with the handprints of our Elders as the roots and branches of family members to signify the generations of growth.”
  • Betty Carpick, who’s inviting people to tell stories about relationships to water to create a quilt-like assemblage.
  • Labspace Studio, which will create a collaborative art installation celebrating the beauty, ecology and majestic depths of Lake Ontario, assembled from hundreds of origami shapes depicting various Lake Ontario species, and suspended in the “Living Earth” room at the Ontario Science Centre.

“Artists play a critical role in enabling the public to connect and reflect upon the often-forgotten importance of our Great Lakes to all of us in our daily lives,” said GAGL Project Lead Christopher McLeod. “(Great Art for Great Lakes), a socially engaged, participatory project, led by the selected artists, will create a platform where the public is integral to the project, dialogue, and the creation of the final work. The extended installation period really allows for a long-lasting narrative on the Great Lakes.”

Great Art for Great Lakes invites the public to check out its Event Schedule to discover and become involved in a free, fun event happening in their community. The events began June 3 and continue through October.

Laura Palumbo is a content writer and project developer for Waterlution and Great Art for Great Lakes.

Children at a June 3 GAGL ice cream social in Hamilton, Ontario. Credit: Anna Wiesen
Children at a June 3 GAGL ice cream social in Hamilton, Ontario. Credit: Anna Wiese

Great Lakes’ Shared Future Considered at ‘Untrouble the Waters’ Summit

By Dr. Rachel Havrelock

Efforts to “Untrouble the Waters” of our Great Lakes have been years in the making.

In 2015, the University of Illinois Freshwater Lab hosted a Water after Borders Summit that brought binational Great Lakes leaders together with Middle East representatives from the Jordan River Valley.

Participants found encouragement in presentations from IJC US Chair Lana Pollack and directors of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Environment Canada. They marveled at how water sharing engaged different factions in the long-standing Middle East conflict. Shared water, it seems, truly transcends boundaries.

This got us thinking about the boundaries in so many Great Lakes cities between races and socio-economic classes, and the degree to which the benefits and risks of water are distributed accordingly. To address this, we focused on Great Lakes mayors of color and convened an environmental justice planning committee. We called the event Untrouble the Waters, and held it May 10-11 at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Ink Factory’s live notetaking of Dr. Rachel Havrelock’s welcome.
The Ink Factory’s live notetaking of Dr. Rachel Havrelock’s welcome.

 

What does it mean to Untrouble the Waters?

Goals for the summit included:

  • Highlight water leadership, particularly by women and people of color
  • Create and support a network to address pressing water issues across cities of the Great Lakes basin
  • Explore equitable water sharing as a means of racial reconciliation and economic development
  • Conceive projects to enhance water quality, human health, and everyday life
  • Build partnerships among government, academia, and communities.

To accomplish these, mayors, local leaders and researchers were invited to envision and launch projects that benefit communities and watersheds. Keynote speaker Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, stressed the importance of reflecting on the global freshwater crises, ranging from disappearing rivers in China to the polluted waters of India and Russia, extreme droughts in Brazil and East Africa, and parched and sinking conditions in Mexico City. This global crisis, Barlow argued, creates a global community that must fight for water justice. The Great Lakes region can benefit from other communities like Zurich and Paris by following their lead to create blue communities. This includes a pledge to protect water as a human right, fight water privatization, and promote tap water over bottled water.

A session on environmental justice and a Great Lakes Mayors Panel highlighted key issues such as aging infrastructure, algal blooms, lead poisoning and water shutoffs, and set the stage for working group discussions the next day. The groups generated several findings and possible projects and efforts to address these and other issues facing Great Lakes communities.

From left to right: Mila K. Marshall, Freshwater Lab director of network resiliency; Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson; Dr. Rachel Havrelock, Freshwater Lab director; Racine, Wisconsin, Mayor John Dickert. Credit: Matthew Kaplan photography
From left to right: Mila K. Marshall, Freshwater Lab director of network resiliency; Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson; Dr. Rachel Havrelock, Freshwater Lab director; Racine, Wisconsin, Mayor John Dickert. Credit: Matthew Kaplan photography

What Did We Learn?

Summit participants came to several conclusions. First, we should start by calling the Great Lakes region what it is – the Water Belt. Then we need to identify the corroded pipes and toxic trails to identify communities most affected by these issues. The problem of violations of water quality regulations and infrastructure obsolescence are widespread in the Great Lakes region. University of Missouri political scientist David Konisky found that state agencies were less likely to enforce Clean Water Act and Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations in counties with higher non-white and low income populations. Michigan State University academics Rachel Butts and Stephen Gasteyer found that counties in Michigan with a higher percent of low-income and non-white residents had higher average water rates.

Second, public utilities must maintain high-quality service amidst rapidly diminishing government revenue and competing desires to privatize water resources and associated infrastructure. The failure of the Flint water system, for example, can be explained through this frame because of the state of Michigan’s direction to switch water sources, which resulted in corrosive water that leached lead from old pipes. This requires not only safeguarding the public operation of water infrastructure, but building blue economies in which locals prosper from reasonable use of their resources. As a step in this direction, the Water Delivery & Lead Pipes working group discussed how municipalities like Flint, Milwaukee and Chicago might replace existing systems while innovating water delivery technology.

The question of how to engage municipal governments likewise concerned the Water Cost and the Human Right to Water group. The group agreed on a project to provide decision makers with context as they determine whether to privatize water systems.

Participants also identified culture as vital to engaging people in water issues, as well as reflecting their experiences and values. Ideas and projects from the summit will be reflected in a Freshwater Stories digital storytelling site, now in development and awaiting expansion through the Freshwater Lab’s collaborative content tour to communities around Lake Michigan during summer 2017.

Far right: Debra Taylor of We the People of Detroit discussed principled community-based research and media strategies with fellow panelists Kim Wasserman-Nieto, Dr. Antonio Lopez, Robin Amer, and Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou. Credit: Matthew Kaplan photography
Far right: Debra Taylor of We the People of Detroit discussed principled community-based research and media strategies with fellow panelists Kim Wasserman-Nieto, Dr. Antonio Lopez, Robin Amer, and Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou. Credit: Matthew Kaplan photography

Water connects and divides communities

Because water constitutes such a necessary public good, participants agreed that we need a new approach that engages everyone in the question of how water is managed. Several summit participants have contributed to a Water Affordability Plan for Detroit, Michigan, to ensure that every household can afford a stable water supply. A bioregional or basinwide orientation was further discussed as a means through which the public might have more of a say over inputs and contaminants. In an era of climatic and political uncertainties, we are still connected by water. The Freshwater Lab now turns to implementing these ideas in its own work and with summit participants and their communities.

For more information about the Freshwater Lab and its 2017 summit, contact Lab Director Rachel Havrelock at raheleh@uic.edu.