Toward the end of Dan Egan’s award-winning book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, the author observes that in the 1960s Michigan unilaterally planted exotic salmon in the Lakes. The action produced a new sportfishery but also changed the ecology of the Great Lakes in unforeseen ways, with consequences that all the people of the Lakes had to bear.
Now, Egan says, emerging technologies formerly the stuff of science fiction may yield solutions to invasive species challenges. A DNA-based eradication tool could wipe out an unwanted fish species, even the detested zebra and quagga mussels. But if experience tells us anything, it is that the application of such a tool could alter the Lakes in ways not anticipated.
“Would a single Great Lakes state today try to act on its own and release a manmade gene in a similar fashion?” Egan asks. “If not, would it take a unanimous vote by all the Great Lakes states? What about the Canadian provinces? What about the federal governments? What about the prospect of mischievous, if well-meaning individuals or groups acting on their own?”
He quotes Russ Van Herick, former director of the Great Lakes Protection Fund: “We are not even close to developing a governance system to catch up with these emerging technologies.”
We aren’t – and we barely know how to conceive of decision-making criteria. How do we determine what kind of Great Lakes we want? And who decides?
Numerous Great Lakes institutions exist and so do numerous Great Lakes agreements, both formal and informal. Most important are the binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which addresses pollution and the interstate Great Lakes Compact, which addresses water diversions.
But there is no overarching agreement among the governments – including tribes and First Nations – and among their peoples on how to address the even broader Great Lakes challenges of the 21st Century. There is no agreement on an ecosystem philosophy – a standard of care by which all governments and peoples will abide – and a decision-making system to carry it out.
So now it’s time for a Great Lakes Stewardship Agreement. Although its substance will take time to develop, it must be rooted in two bedrock principles:
- The Great Lakes are a public trust belonging to the people, with governments acting as trustees to assure that trust is undiminished over time;
- Decisions that have any potential to affect the Great Lakes as a whole – whether it’s the introduction of a DNA-based invasive species eradication tool, construction of “speed bumps” in the St. Clair River to raise the level of Lakes Huron and Michigan, or manufacture of a new chemical that might bioaccumulate in the Lakes ecosystem – must be subject to full transparency, including an open public consultation and the consent of the governed.
The original Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement took several years to negotiate and implement. The Great Lakes Compact took a decade. So there’s no time to waste – the future is upon us. The fashioning of a Great Lakes Stewardship Agreement must begin today.