Water levels in the Great Lakes were at a record low in January. Like many issues affecting the Great Lakes Region, Canadians and Americans are affected equally. As a region, we have common interests but no common voice.
That is why dozens of organizations from across the region are this week launching a new binational council to address our environmental and economic challenges. The new Council of the Great Lakes Region will bring together leaders from diverse sectors across the eight Great Lakes states, Ontario and Quebec.
The federal, provincial, state and municipal governments will be at the table, but environmental organizations and the private sector will run the organization. It will promote the prosperity and sustainability of the Great Lakes Region.
The people who live in our region are bound together by the Great Lakes and our shared ecosystem. But environmental issues, like water levels, are also economic issues. In our region, a healthy ecosystem supports a vibrant economy — and vice versa.
The Great Lakes contain 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water and provide drinking water to millions, while also supporting power plants and industrial ports. The beaches and wetlands live side by side with heavy industry. Niagara Falls is both natural wonder and key linchpin in power generation for the region.
In our region, most industries recognize that the health of the lakes is tied to success. Shipping, agriculture, energy and tourism all depend on healthy Great Lakes. The water itself is a critical input to the manufacturing and food processing sectors.
Lower water levels mean that shippers carry smaller loads, increasing shipping costs per tonnage. In turn, dock workers with less cargo to manage lose jobs. Cargo then has to be trucked or carried by train, increasing fuel costs and emissions.
Lower water levels dry out wetlands, where many species of fish spawn and hatch. This damages the ecosystem and endangers food chains throughout the region. It affects the fishing industry, an important commercial and recreational activity and a cornerstone of aboriginal and native American life.
North America’s population clustered around the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin over the centuries because of water abundance. When we fail to act, we threaten our quality of life and economic future.
These are not Canadian issues or American issues. They are our common issues. Our futures are tied to one another. The waters of Georgian Bay are tied to those of Lake Michigan; the economy of Buffalo is tied to that of Toronto.
People on both sides of the border know that the health of the economy and the ecosystem on one side of the border will impact those on the other side. But no organization has a mandate to focus on the future of the binational region.
Infrastructure, energy, investment attraction and tourism are just a few of the issues where closer co-operation would benefit people on both sides of the border. Some of the first issues the new council will tackle will be water levels, infrastructure renewal and border improvements.
The future is unpredictable, but looking forward 25 years, the communities around the Great Lakes are a good bet to be among the best places in the world to live. But we must steward that common future together, with smart regulatory, policy and planning choices.
Until now, the region has not had a voice. With the founding of the Council of the Great Lakes Region, it finally does.