FLOW’s Two-Pronged Proposal to the IJC for an Emergency Pilot Study and Urgent Action to Address the Effects of Climate Change

Pierre Béland, IJC Commissioner and Canadian Chair, addresses the audience July 24, 2019, in Traverse City. Photo by Rick Kane

Because science-based approaches or models now can isolate or identify the intensified effects from climate change, governmental bodies, like the IJC and the Council of Great Lakes Governors or the parallel Regional Body, can discern cause, effect, and solutions tied to identified flows and levels linked to climate change, and at the same time continue to address effects from human activity within the historical normal range of flows and levels within the Basin. This approach will provide a responsive, proactive institutional process to prevent or minimize catastrophic consequences caused by, or scientifically attributable to, climate change.

This “emergency pilot study” would develop the protocol for the IJC to separate effects and impacts on levels within the normal range of water levels and those dynamic and variable effects beyond the normal range of flows and levels caused by climate change. For another example, the IJC and Council of Great Lakes Governors and Regional Body, who are responsible for critical decisions on major exceptions to the diversion ban or consumptive uses, can separate the effects from climate change to assure that decisions are based on the changing and dynamic nature measured by scientific evidence, and on public trust-based analysis and decisions. In addition to human-made transfers of water in and out of the Basin, it is now scientifically established that climate change constitutes one of the largest, if not the largest, effects on flows and levels of water in the Great Lakes and Basin. In physical terms, climate change can either intensify the diversion of water outside the Basin or into the Basin.

At the moment, there is and will be tremendous pressure on governments and decision-makers to rid the Basin of “too much water.” When water levels have or will likely rise above normal levels, the effects and impacts can be predicted and proactive actions taken. The IJC and governments (provinces, states, and communities) must act swiftly before decisions are made that are wrong, with serious consequences, or decisions that establish precedents that destroy or undermine the Great Lakes Compact, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and other laws and protocols regarding the withdrawal, use, or diversion of water. By establishing a solution-based approach using real-time scientific evidence and climate forecasting coupled with a public trust framework, governments and decision-makers will be better equipped to make the right emergency or long-term decisions, not only for “too much” water, but when there is too little.

Governmental bodies will be able to make immediate, timely, responsive decisions based on models and actual and predicted rises and their impacts. In turn, these decisions can be evaluated within current institutional regimes, like the Compact or Boundary Waters Treaty, or through a new agreement, process, or guideline, using the public trust principles of accountability and the duty to prevent and minimize and protect waters and uses from impairment or interference. For example, faced with extraordinary water levels and catastrophic damage, could water be “diverted” out of the Basin on a temporary basis as a “humanitarian” exception in the Compact? Could existing diversions of water into the Basin—like the Ogaki-Nipigon or Lake Lac—be temporarily reversed or reduced? Can this be tied to climate change effects to avoid precedents that would undermine the integrity of the Compact, the Boundary Waters Treaty, and/or Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement?

The IJC has a unique opportunity to engage in a pilot study right now, to bring into being solutions and a framework to implement adaptive and resilient measures to prevent or reduce the effects and impacts to all of us—our lives, health, quality of life, and economy—attributable to climate change. Now is the time.

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