Last month, the International Joint Commission (IJC), created by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, released its first triennial assessment of Great Lakes water quality under a new iteration of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
In the Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP), the IJC commended the two federal governments for considerable progress they have made to accelerate the cleanup of contaminated Areas of Concern, set new loading targets for the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie to reduce harmful algal blooms, and establish the work groups and processes needed to implement the Agreement. But it identified a number of areas where progress is lagging. IJC finds that work needs to be increased in several key areas.
“The IJC identifies specific gaps in achieving the human health objectives of the Agreement for drinkable, swimmable and fishable waters, and recommends that the governments set an accelerated and fixed period of time for effectively achieving zero discharge of inadequately treated or untreated sewage into the Great Lakes,” the Commission said. It also criticized the governments for moving too slowly on chemicals of mutual concern and called on EPA and the State of Ohio to go beyond reliance on voluntary measures by farmers to clean up the severe algae problem on Lake Erie.
In a technical document backing up the report, the IJC noted again that public trust principles could be an effective way of dealing with a multitude of Great Lakes problems. The document cited FLOW founder Jim Olson in making this observation. The IJC also referred to public trust principles in two previous reports, after hearing from Jim and Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians in 2011.
We asked the U.S. Section Chair of the IJC, Lana Pollack, to offer some thoughts on the report. A native of Michigan, Lana has been a distinguished public servant with a resume that includes three terms in the Michigan Senate. President Obama appointed her to the IJC in 2010.
The media coverage of TAP has emphasized the “finding fault with government performance” theme. Is that an accurate summary?
The media is giving short shrift to the high praise we gave to the governments for a lot of good work that IJC recognized, especially AOCs [cleanup of Areas of Concern], indicators and other organizational achievements that has gotten the governments off to a strong start in several important elements of GL restoration.
What kind of reaction have you gotten from the governments so far?
It’s been generally positive. Canadian Section Chair Gordon Walker and I presented the TAP at the recent GLEC [Great Lakes Executive Committee] meeting and found little pushback. They are already moving toward some of our recommendations.
Can you pick out one or two of the policy recommendations you find most important?
Prevention through EPR, or Extended Producer Responsibility where the manufacturer of a product is responsible for its entire life cycle, including disposal. Prevention through call for zero discharge and for infrastructure investments to end sewage being dumped into the Lakes. A call for Ohio to designate open waters of Lake Erie impaired, for enforceable standards on farm pollution, for linking federal farm subsidies to farmers’ implementation of best management practices that we can document reduce pollution, and stronger cleanup plans for Lake Erie that detail who is doing what, when, so we can have accountability for success or failure.
Does the Trump Administration’s climate denial have any implications for the Great Lakes?
Yes, it makes everything harder, because the Trump-Pruitt administration challenges the need for protections and would have essential funding removed.
How if at all do you see the public trust principles FLOW espouses playing into solutions for the Great Lakes problems you’ve identified?
Informed public engagement at the community and regional level is essential to realizing adequate financial and policy support from our local, state and federal governments. Support from responsible, science-based NGOs provides essential pathways for information flow between the scientists, the public and elected lawmakers. FLOW has been an important, informed and effective voice in this process.
On the priority issues that FLOW is focusing on, it’s making significant contributions in educating the public and changing the dialogue with elected officials.
Why, when so many people use and cherish the Great Lakes, are they in mostly fair to poor condition?
Most people do not think a great deal about the connection between public policy and the health of the lakes. They don’t recognize that without strong standards that include protections from pollution and laws that hold corporations and people legally accountable as well as financially responsible, it’s inevitable that the lakes will be polluted. Many people have no idea that the people whom they support are voting in Lansing and Washington to let big polluters off scott free. That’s why organizations like FLOW are so important because they are vehicles for informing the public about the risks to the Great Lakes while they also educate elected officials about the issues and the need for better protections.
Do you have any advice for citizens on what to do with the report?
Read the report for the subject areas and the issues that are most important to you and your community and with that information, make your concerns heard. Call, write, email or visit with your elected representatives and let them know you care. Cite the report to support your positions. Support and work with FLOW and other environmental and conservation groups that are focused on your issues. It’s always better to work in concert with other like-minded individuals. Talk about your lakes to your family, friends, neighbors and others in your circles of influence. You can make a difference.