More than a century ago, the Boundary Waters Treaty established an advisory group made up of representatives from the United States and Canada. The International Joint Commission, it was tasked with preventing and resolving disputes over the use of the waters shared by the two countries.
Today, a primary function of the IJC is to report – to both the U.S. and Canada - how effectively the two countries are restoring and protecting the Great Lakes.
The Commission is midway in drafting an update, called the Triennial Assessment Report, which, in part, will be fueled by the latest science and citizen input.
Commissioners spent the day in Milwaukee Tuesday. The backdrop of their visit was UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences.
Researchers shared the latest in topics, such as the long-term generational impacts of mercury exposure and the impacts of future climate change.
IJC commissioner Lana Pollack says she would be leaving Wisconsin with some key information that will influence their upcoming Great Lakes assessment report.
“One of the things that has come up repeatedly this evening with the public is the need for investment and redevelopment protection of green infrastructure, which of course means letting the more natural systems do their work to filter the water, to keep it clean, to slow it down to help prevent the worse ravages of flooding,” Pollack says.
Scientists reported on the interface between agriculture and water quality.
“In Green Bay, in particular. We heard in Milwaukee about basic science that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago – understanding the DNA of contaminents, of bacteria, of the water quality stressors. How can we do a better job closing beaches that need to be closed, but not doing it so late that the damage has been done,” Pollack adds, “More importantly, how can we do a better job in preventing the contamination that causes public officials to have to close the beach, that’s the goal.”
Pollack says she was also struck by a presentation on citizen monitoring of Milwaukee’s river basin, which brought up the point of public access. Pollack used Milwaukee’s harbor as an example.
“You can go for nine miles and there’s only one place to put in for a kayak or a canoe. There’s no access here,” she says.
Pollack acknowledges historically waterfronts were reserved for heavy industry and shipping.
“But if people can’t access the water here, they’re not going to advocate for the water. The one thing I recognize is the Great Lakes are situated between and within two great democracies. Governments respond to public demand for protection and cleanup of the waters,” Pollack says.
She points to the 1960s when the public called for environmental protections.
“They will only come again because of public demand, and the public won’t feel empowered, if they don’t have access,” Pollack says.
Before Tuesday’s public meeting closed, Pollack invited people who hadn’t had the opportunity to share concerns to step up.
John Schafer stepped up to the microphone. The School of Freshwater Sciences grad student raised an issue that hadn’t surfaced earlier in the day - aging infrastructure.
“What I’m highlighting tonight is the need to reinvest in our water infrastructure, and the great benefits we receive as a community by reinvesting in our water infrastructure...I’d be interested to see any economic analysis that’s been done in the past from the IJC and how these sort of investments... pay off in the long run for the citizens and for the future of our communities. As we look forward, looking at how we’re going to move forward as a nation, I believe that these water jobs can provide high-paying, good jobs for people here in the United States and can help protect our water resources,” Schafer added, “I’d like to see federal funding for that.”
First semester grad student Michelle Soderling said she attended, not knowing what to expect.
“I’d love to see more incorporation of green infrastructure and more education in Milwaukee Public Schools with water. It’s great to meet with people who are passionate about similar things," Soderling added, "It’s nice to see it’s not only local, it’s also regional and it’s global. Freshwater is so important to everyone.
Val Klump wears more than one Great Lakes’ hat as School of Freshwater Sciences dean and member of the IJC’s science advisory board.
Klump says Tuesday marked the Commission’s first visit to Milwaukee.
“One of the commissioners said to me that what was encouraging to him that it was not just a litany of the problems, but there’s some hope, that we had solutions, we see what we need to do and we’re working on the solutions. And that’s true. As a group and as a region we’re working on trying to find the solutions,” Klump adds, “it’s our job to do it. I always say the future has no constituency, it’s up to us to make sure these lakes around five hundred years from now.”
The IJC’s triennial report is due next summer.