Desperate Alewives: A fresh approach to governance


By Jane Elder

I promised to talk about substance this time, but there’s so much substance on the table it is difficult to know where to start, but I’ll wade into the waters of governance.

Governance is a clunky word — a noun constructed to carry the weight of how two nations will actually govern, or manage their commitments to protect the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes.

Let me gently suggest that the status quo is not working terribly well, and this invites opportunities to re-imagine cooperation across friendly borders on behalf of the lakes. Some of us remember what worked well through the IJC and the Agreement process prior to the 1987 changes in governance. While nostalgia for days past isn’t sufficient to build a new structure, there’s a fair amount of agreement on what we old timers miss. Here’s a short list:

  • the commitment to binationalism and a “lake-centric” approach;
  • the independence and imprimatur of the science advisory board and the water quality board, and
  • a vibrant community of engaged leaders in government, science, advocacy and policy development that resulted from the exchange of information and the knowledge that had come from working together on issues, regardless of our nationality.

The changes in 1987 were meant, in theory, to get the implementers – EPA and Environment Canada – and the state and provincial regulators (Ministry of the Environment and the various DNRs, DERs, etc.) to meet and exchange information more directly, and not be constrained to communicate through the IJC boards. Something called the Binational Executive Committee (BEC) was formed to foster this exchange.

Have you ever been to a BEC meeting? Do you know what they do? Can you point to a BEC action in the last 5 years that changed the fate of the Great Lakes?

In the BEC era, the Science Advisory Board (SAB) and Water Quality Board (WQB) have faded from their former prominence as authoritative voices for the lakes, and the IJC itself is now a commission with little visibility or interaction with the various constituencies of the region. In spite of a few good presentations, the last IJC meeting I attended was so pre-packaged in terms of public dialogue and interaction with the boards and commissioners, that it left me and a lot of others, asking “why bother?” The worst moment was when my traveling companion overheard a commissioner in the hallway say, “How many of these people do we have to listen to before we can leave?” right before the public comment session on the last day. I understand that on day 3, everyone wants to get home, so why treat public input like an end-of-agenda chore?

If we’re going to have an IJC, and I think we should, we should make it work for the lakes, the people of the lakes and the agencies in charge. It should be transparent, visible, open and accountable. I don’t think the BEC arrangement has moved us in that direction.

During one of the recent Webinars on this topic, one commenter suggested that what we need for future work is teams of experts and leaders working across borders. OK, I’m listening. Others have suggested making sure there are citizens (and not just public officials) involved in these teams as well. Suddenly I’m really interested. What if we took the best of the old model — independent boards of scientists and regulatory experts, and then developed bi-national teams to tackle issues from new dead zones to pharmaceutical pollution. What if these teams came together through biennial meetings, but also used tools like the Web, and reported and interacted with commissioners, constituents, regulatory officials, the media, etc. Maybe then, the binational spirit to embrace and protect our greatest lakes could rise again.

Jane Elder is a Great Lakes policy analyst, advocate, writer and die-hard fan of big freshwater ecosystems.

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