International Great Lakes executive: Raise your voice
Want to have your voice heard? Consider this Great Lakes scenario:
Say a friend, knowing of your interest in the Great Lakes, asks for your thoughts on the new Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement?
Hmm, where’d that come from? Most people don’t know it exists. But the pressure’s on.
You could say “I’m still reading it, I’ll get back to you.” But that would be an obvious dodge. Or, since you’re already Great Lakes savvy, you could give it a high level read and focus on one or two issues of interest.
Then your response could be yes, let’s discuss it. There’s no need to be an expert. You only need to be knowledgeable and conversant enough to make an informed point about an area important to you.
If you do that you’ll be miles ahead of most.
To help you get over that hurdle, consider this vignette where I was in a similar situation.
A Chicago Public Radio interviewer recently asked me to comment on the big Great Lakes topics.
Anticipating the question, I had notes that said algae blooms and Asian carp. The agreement too was in my notes but I had crossed it out. Too much about policy and it’s for insiders, I had decided. And it’s hard to explain in a short time frame.
Then literally at the last second I decided to lead with the new Great Lakes Water Quality agreement between the U.S. and Canada.
Why the switch? Carp and algae already get a lot of media attention and the agreement is important but under reported. It could use some exposure in easy to understand language.
Sensing the need to assure the interviewer that I wasn’t going to ramble for seven minutes explaining the agreement, I said “now before everyone begins tuning out…,” which garnered a laugh from the interviewer. I took 90 seconds to talk about the agreement and its importance then we tackled algae and carp.
Why the prompt for listeners to not tune out?
Reading the agreement is tedious, in spite of the fact that authors tried this time to write it with the public in mind. And it impacts you if you drink Great Lakes water, visit the beaches and other near shore areas and fish, swim or rely on the lakes for commerce. That’s about 30 million of us. Make that 40 million including our neighbors in Canada.
Three things to know
The agreement charts how the two countries are going to manage the Great Lakes for years and maybe decades into the future.
Taking my own advice, here are three things that are important.
- The agreement formally recognizes “that near shore areas must be restored and protected.” They’re the source of drinking water “and are the critical link between watersheds and the open waters of the Great Lakes.” It’s important to have near shore health codified in international law.
- Introduction of the precautionary approach, which essentially says when threats are serious enough and damage could be irreversible, a “lack of scientific certainty” can’t be used as a reason for inaction. This had already been codified in an international declaration so it’s great to see it trickle down to the agreement.
- The introduction of prevention as an official approach. Past agreements have focused on cleaning up past problems out of necessity but said little if anything about preventing pollution. This could be a breakthrough and it has a great sales point; it costs less to prevent than to clean up.
The agreement is a legal and binding document between the U.S. and Canada and both can compel the other to implement it, though timelines can be vague and that’s a concern. Before you start searching for attorneys so you can sue if the countries don’t comply with their own agreement, know that it’s not enforceable by outside parties.
The accountability question
So who holds the U.S. and Canada to account?
Environmental groups will play a role. They’ve given the agreement tentative support but will be quick to raise red flags when necessary. They’re aware of past dawdling so they’ll be impressed by deed, not word.
Ultimately it’s the International Joint Commission – the U.S. and Canadian agency that advises the governments on trans-border water issues. They have a laundry list of responsibilities in the agreement and keeping score and advising when targets aren’t met are among them.
It could be said that the commission is the only independent accountability mechanism in the agreement so it needs to do more than go through the motions. It needs to be proactive in doing its job.
Who holds the commission accountable? We all do, or should.
The people who turn on the tap, visit the hopefully algae-free beach and who want to fish in water free from mercury pollution are the ones who should be vigilant.
The International Joint Commission has been trying to transform itself in the past three years from the epitome of stodgy and aloof to really embracing citizen engagement. As I watch its efforts I see improvement. There’s been a genuine attempt to ditch the off-putting and perfunctory public sessions from the past. The current commissioners can still have questionable public exchanges but they’re headed in the right direction.
By sharing your concerns with the commission – that one issue you took from reading the water quality agreement – you can hold it to account and help the commissioners do their job with the governments.
In fact commission chair Lana Pollack has asked for your support requesting that the public “raise its voice…” and demand replacement of ”failing policies and practices.”
The 2012 update to the agreement will succeed or fail depending on the willingness of the governments to fund the required work and make hard decisions which won’t make everyone happy.
You can help by raising your voice as Pollack requested.
Then it’s up to Pollack and her colleagues.