In September of 2019, the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation hosted a conference with the International Joint Commission (IJC). The purpose was to give local experts and the public an opportunity to share their water quality concerns for Lake Superior and the larger Great Lakes basin.
The public hearing portion of the event stays with me vividly. I was a student working with the Burke Center, and we all were anxiously awaiting to see how many people would come. When I finally walked in and saw the crowd, tears welled in my eyes. All the work over the last five months had come to fruition.
The Northland College Alvord Theatre was full—standing room only. Approximately two-hundred people turned out and we listened to them share their concerns and dreams for Lake Superior for hours. Comments covered climate change, treaty rights, algal blooms, infrastructure, public engagement, and beyond.
The commission, appointed by the Canadian prime minister and the American president, use this sort of public input from communities around the Great Lakes basin, along with current Great Lakes research, to fulfill one of their main responsibilities: assessing the progress of governments, organizations, and the public towards goals and objectives outlined in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
The Agreement was created to support the people in protecting, restoring, and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Great Lakes. The IJC publishes an assessment of progress reports with recommendations for the governments on how to best create and adapt Great Lakes policies and programs to meet these goals.
Their latest Triennial Assessment of Progress Report was released in December 2020. My colleague, Valerie Damstra, and I were honored to participate in the digital release of the report.
The report includes three recommendations. The first is to lead a collaborative and coordinated effort to eliminate blue-green algal blooms on Lake Superior. The topic of algal blooms was brought up and explored in detail in both parts of the conference in Ashland as it has become a large focus of research and collaboration efforts through the Burke Center.
The two other recommendations include transforming outreach in the Lake Action Management plans, with the intention to give the public and stakeholders more variant and meaningful ways to engage, looking to the once highly successful Lake Superior Binational forum as a model; and developing a new assessment framework for the IJC with the intent to improve accountability and better honor the independence of stakeholders working with Great Lakes water quality.
Valerie and I both shared personal statements based on the recommendations. Valerie spoke of the excitement and gratitude from our region for the recommendation to expand research and collaboration around Lake Superior algal blooms. I addressed the importance of the other two recommendations for the potential support they may provide to the work of relationship building and of centering historically marginalized voices and experiences; work I believe is vital to the overall maintenance and preservation of Great Lakes water quality.
For me, the experience was fulfilling and exciting. The recommendations presented strongly reflected the comments from the Chequamegon Bay community, illustrating to me the power our relationship to water holds and the impact of stories from those who depend on these waters for their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Emma Holtan graduated from Northland College last May and is currently working for the Burke Center as a water research specialist focusing on communications.