This article is cross-posted from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online and is written by Maude Barlow. Maude Barlow is the national chairwoman of the Council of Canadians and chairs the board of Washington-based Food and Water Watch.
The Great Lakes are in serious trouble. Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are at their lowest levels since record keeping began in 1918, and the levels of Lakes Superior, Ontario and Erie are also well below average.
Lake levels in Milwaukee are creating uncertainty for residents who are unsure how lower levels will affect storm water runoff, the shipping and fishing industry and their livelihoods. The situation could be exacerbated by a proposal to transport water from Lake Michigan via pipeline to Waukesha residents, which requires approval under the Great Lakes compact.
Pollution, climate change, over-extraction and invasive species are all taking their toll on the watershed that provides life and livelihood to more than 40 million people and thousands of species that live around it. The Great Lakes are a source of increasing concern as residents watch their shorelines recede, their beaches close and their fisheries decline.
Adding to these concerns is a Wisconsin bill aimed at streamlining the mining permitting process, which was signed last month, reducing environmental standards for iron mining and threatening water sources.
The story of the global water crisis sets the stage all over the world: to feed the increasing demands of a consumer-based system. We have built our economic and development policies based on a human-centric model and assumed that nature would never fail to provide or that, where it does fail, technology will save the day.
What might happen if the citizens living around the Great Lakes, including in Milwaukee, decided to collectively protect them based on some of the very principles and practices that informed the first peoples of the region, namely that the Great Lakes must be shared equitably by all who live around them and protected for seven generations into the future? What if governments managed the lakes based on the human right to water, incorporated public input and prioritized public and indigenous rights over private interests?
These ideas form the basis of an emerging new vision for the Great Lakes, one that is based on the notion of the "Commons" and Public Trust Doctrine.
A group of legal experts from Canada and the United States have described a Commons approach as one which requires that "we envision water as a shared resource and so recognize our shared responsibility to carefully steward our water resources. The goal of a Commons approach to water is to ensure that there is sufficient water to meet human and ecological and community needs for many generations to come."
The Public Trust Doctrine holds that certain natural resources, including groundwater, belong to the community and cannot be privately owned or controlled. This means that governments, as trustees, are obliged to protect these resources for the common good and ensure that they are not appropriated for private gain.
Unless we shift the current "business as usual" model and create real sustainable jobs, the Great Lakes will remain in peril and we as a generation will have failed future generations in protecting the region's largest and most precious watershed. Protecting the future of the Great Lakes is in all of our hands. When communities come together with passion and purpose, they can change political priorities and shape a better future for these precious lakes.