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COMMENTARY: Predicting, Preventing, and Addressing Long-Term Threats to the Great Lakes

CGLI recently was asked whether we perceive any imminent or long-term threats to the Great Lakes that deserve more attention, and whether we can suggest an “early warning system” that can be implemented to help the Great Lakes policy community anticipate threats to the lakes before they cause significant harm.

The CGLI team discussed the issue internally for a long time. In the end, we concluded that we are not aware of any imminent threats that are not already being addressed. A myriad of government programs address environmental stressors that impact or may impact the Great Lakes. These programs generally are sufficient to address the stressors that have been identified (at least to the extent resources exist and are applied) and protect the lakes from serious environmental threats that otherwise might manifest.

Moreover, a complex governance framework exists in the region to address new or emerging Great Lakes stressors when government programs (which often are slow to change and adapt) cannot respond. By governance framework, we mean the interconnected and generally collaborative group of binational quasi-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, influential and engaged private foundations, and business and industry groups (like us) that so actively engages on Great Lakes issues. Great Lakes government and governance organizations are well-organized and extremely robust. As such, they supplement existing government programs when necessary to identify and address new or previously unseen challenges that may arise.

While we don’t see any imminent threat that is not already on the radar, the region may need to pay more attention to a couple potential long-term stressors. The first that comes to mind concerns potential future climate change impacts. Climate predictions indicate that water availability could become an important concern in other parts of the country, and as a result the Great Lakes region potentially could become an even more important industrial–especially agricultural–hub, in the long term. This consequence is of tremendous economic interest to the region, of course, but also could create additional pressure on the current system of water infrastructure. In addition, increased agricultural production could exacerbate issues like nutrient run-off, and increased water use in other industrial sectors could increase discharges. The region may have to increase its focus on water conservation and stewardship to protect Great Lakes water quantity, especially since regional climate scientists predict changes in the water levels of regional lakes, rivers, and groundwater.

The second long-term stressor that we see is a misalignment between the needs of the Great Lakes system and the short-term thinking that often characterizes governmental action. The Great Lakes system is so huge and so complicated (environmentally, economically, and culturally) that it can take years before stressors to the system actually cause significant harm. It takes even longer for the benefits and positive outcomes of our investments in restoration to materialize. But while the lakes operate on very long, even geologic, timeframes, political systems are structured around relatively short election cycles and frequently changing agency rosters. The region urgently needs continuity and greater durability in government programs, agency leadership, and resource allocations to sustain progress in protecting and restoring the lakes and improving the regional economy and quality of life.

Incidentally, we believe a distinction should be made between the words “stressors” and “threats.” From our perspective, “stressors” are conditions, circumstances, or events that have been shown or are believed to be potentially harmful to the lake ecosystem. “Threats” are conditions, circumstances, or events that present a real risk of harm. In our view, as a community we should track and monitor stressors to establish a baseline and identify trends, but should take action only when it is clear that a stressor has become an actual threat. In some cases, stressors may require affirmative action, proportionate to the risk of harm, when necessary to minimize or reverse a potential threat – an actual effect on the lakes. But not every stressor will become a threat, especially when managed. To us, the words are not interchangeable.

Over the long term, we need to protect the lakes by enhancing their natural ability to adapt to changing conditions. Obvious examples include, where appropriate, green infrastructure for filtration and groundwater recharge; coastal development that minimizes human impact on lake ecosystems; effective storm- and wastewater management to reduce flooding and minimize pollutant discharge; and incorporating wetlands, forested areas, buffers, and other green spaces to mitigate excess nutrient runoff. Increasing the resilience of the lower lakes, where development is more intense, may be particularly important. Programs that incentivize these measures would be a good investment in the future of the Great Lakes system.

And strategic public education and outreach is essential to help governments anticipate and respond to emerging threats to the Lakes. Long-term progress in protecting and restoring the lakes and ensuring that the use of and interaction with the Great Lakes ecosystem is sustainable requires a well-educated, engaged, and committed citizenry. Individuals both inside and outside the region need to understand that the lakes are a valuable asset, and they must be willing to take action and make investments to protect and restore them. Creating, enhancing, and maintaining a dialogue with the public would encourage “buy in” for Great Lakes programs. In addition, done well, public dialogue creates a conduit for “on the ground” information about ecosystem conditions and concerns. Taken in context, this type of information can be useful for seeing what might be on the horizon with respect to the condition of the ecosystem, particularly at a sub-regional level.

Another important mechanism for protecting the Lakes involves supporting and maintaining robust monitoring and surveillance programs. We cannot overemphasize the importance of strategic monitoring and data collection, accompanied by effective information management and delivery, as a means of anticipating, prioritizing, and addressing threats to the Great Lakes. Strategic monitoring and data collection enables researchers and policymakers to identify baseline conditions and trends and use this information as an important predictive tool. Continued support of programs that focus on monitoring and surveillance is essential to the long-term protection of the lakes.

Finally, continued coordination, collaboration, and data sharing among the myriad of jurisdictions, organizations, institutions, and individuals that address Great Lakes issues is critical to the sustainability of programs that protect and restore the Great Lakes. For many years, CGLI has promoted multi-stakeholder policy development, sound science and unbiased data, and principles of sustainability as the basis for Great Lakes policy. We continue to engage our members in issue-focused work groups to develop and promote these foundational ideas. We also participate in committees, councils, and boards of directors convened by groups like the Great Lakes Commission, the Conference of Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, Great Lakes Observing System, Great Lakes Blue Accounting Initiative, Great Lakes Advisory Board, and numerous science and information subcommittees to promote the value of collaborative problem-solving and information-sharing. Time and again, the sorting out of which Great Lakes stressors have presented, or are predicted to present, real threats to the ecosystem has been greatly aided by collaboration between scientists, academic researchers, agency resource managers, and stakeholders.