The governors and premiers of the Great Lakes met the weekend of June 12, 2015 in Quebec City, Quebec. Joel Brammeier, Alliance president and CEO, was in attendance and shared his reflections on the event in the note to supporters below.
Why will anyone want to move to the Great Lakes in ten years?
A big, big deal happened this weekend that might be the start of an answer. Ohio, Michigan and Ontario’s elected leaders committed to a 40% reduction of phosphorus in Lake Erie by 2025. Phosphorus is the key pollutant underlying the toxic algae blooms that shut down Toledo’s water system last August and left hundreds of thousands of people and businesses with dry taps. The 40% promise has the potential to reaffirm the Great Lakes as a world leader in clean water. The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an excellent editorial prior to the Summit breaking down the issue.
At this past weekend’s Quebec summit of the governors and provincial premiers, our leaders convened conversations on other topics that were refreshingly candid and long term. Rather than shy away from hard data, speakers pointed out flat and declining populations and job loss while also highlighting lessons we need to take from strong local economic clusters. I heard about the liability of failing blue, green and gray infrastructure – no secret to any elected official, environmentalist or business. And it came through loud and clear that failure to find political consensus to prevent Asian carp reaching the lakes is simply not an option.
Here and there I heard bits of pride about a Great Lakes people that “gets things done,” that collaborates beyond measure compared to the rest of the world, and holds fresh water as an advantage that no other place can match. I’ll confess a bit of that puffery came from me. Standing on a cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River swells the heart and inspires the mind.
We move mountains when we want to, as with the U.S. effort to restore the Great Lakes with nearly $2 billion in federal investment. And cities, states and provinces in both countries are rightly touting a “blue economy” that hinges on water technology, a globally competitive research capacity, unmatched outdoor recreation, and the simple sense of well-being that comes with life next to water. We imagine a future where business, workforce and tourists clamor to our shores.
All of this assumes the water is here, and the water is clean.
We fell down on the latter. Last August, a great Great Lakes city – Toledo, Ohio – went without drinking water for more than 2 days. Other communities were affected for weeks by toxic clouds of algae fouling Lake Erie. Media broadcast the Great Lakes as unfit to drink or swim in. Stories like that don’t attract talent, create jobs, rent cabins or sell fishing licenses. More fundamentally, they threaten to restart a cycle of disconnect and uncaring among Great Lakers. You won’t love water that induces fear.
So: the big deal. Michigan, Ohio and Ontario committed to reducing the pollution that causes algae blooms in western Lake Erie by 40% by the year 2025. This is huge. 40% of the phosphorus that enters the western basin of Lake Erie in a year is around 2600 metric tons, or more than 5 million pounds. The serious money that goes toward achieving the goal will be a sign of how serious we are about clean water. Another part of the “big deal” is that our leaders made the commitment knowing that a hefty chunk of the reduction has to come from agriculture – an industry not typically mandated to show clean water performance. Governors Kasich and Snyder and Premier Wynne stared down the toxic water washing up on Lake Erie’s shores and, instead of flinching, worked with everyone on their home turf to deliver a promise to the people of the Great Lakes region. They deserve thanks from all of us. And this commitment is the product of years of work by many people and organizations – we are proud to stand with a strong group of critical partners.
40% in ten years. A healthy lake in ten years. Kasich & Snyder will not be in office then, and twelve years would be a long, though not unprecedented, time for Wynne as provincial premier. So what does a promise made today truly mean? It means as much as we, the people of the Great Lakes region, choose to make it mean. I heard this weekend that nothing focuses the mind like goals and deadlines. We need to drill down into that 40% right away and define exactly how, when and where we will stop that pollution. Our region works when the people of the Great Lakes take a goal spoken by our leaders and make it our own. We get the details lined up and make sure that every public official hears: “We expect you to do right by the Great Lakes.”
Saturday morning, the governors and premiers showed a retrospective on the groundbreaking Great Lakes Water Resources Compact and Agreement, which was passed into federal law in 2008. This policy was 10 years in the making. In the video, I heard a voiceover that “water in its place has value.” Water’s mere existence in these Great Lakes is a premium we have been entrusted to protect. To attract the world, we have to put our house in order. Water that is clean and water that is here is the foundation from which every other noble initiative will be built.
This work will be a major commitment of the Alliance for the Great Lakes and many partners in the coming months and years. We look forward to being a key part of the movement that confirms the Great Lakes as a global leader in clean water. Let’s bring it back.