Binational Project Underway to Develop Sustainability Indicators for the Great Lakes

Noah Webster
University of Michigan
Picture of Raj Bejankiwar
Raj Bejankiwar
IJC
October 15, 2019

Great Lakes policy development and management actions rely on data from scientifically-based indicators. Currently, indicators primarily monitor the physical, chemical and biological health of the lakes and inform actions needed to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Now additional social and economic indicators are being developed as part of a project funded by the Erb Family Foundation.

Existing indicators are the result of regional and binational efforts including the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conferences (SOLEC), IJC efforts and the Great Lakes Blue Accounting initiative. Over the years, many in the region have recognized the need for additional indicators to track the many ways society benefits from the Great Lakes. However, after renewing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 2012, the Canadian and US governments are emphasizing refinement of physical, chemical and biological indicators over related societal measures.

While holding public events in 2015 to develop its triennial report on progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the IJC received questions about access to clean and safe drinking water and water shut-offs. Without data from indicators on these topics, the IJC was not equipped to address these questions. This led to conversations between the IJC and Erb Family Foundation about the ongoing need for societal indicators to monitor how the region benefits from a healthy Great Lakes ecosystem, identify any inequities in access to these benefits and highlight potential emerging threats to Great Lakes sustainability. In response, the foundation awarded a one-year planning grant to the University of Michigan to identify sustainability indicators related to Great Lakes health and develop an implementation plan.

The Great Lakes sustainability indicator project has three goals: to identify five to seven sustainability indicators, select an indicator to pilot and develop an implementation plan.

These societal indicators will complement currently used physical, chemical and biological indicators to provide a more complete picture of Great Lakes sustainability. The project team includes staff and faculty from four entities: the University of Michigan’s Water Center, Institute for Social Research, School of Social Work and Department of Economics. The project team is guided by a steering committee of representatives from the IJC, Great Lakes Commission and Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

The team is building on previous work, including societal indicators reported on in the 2011 SOLEC meeting, work from other regions and ecosystem services literature. They also are using expert input, including interviews and surveys with people working in Great Lakes policy and management, to document how society benefits from the Great Lakes and identify ideas about how to measure these benefits.

kayaker - great lakes connection
A kayaker in Lake St. Clair. Credit: Michigan Sea Grant

Workshops in July in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and August in Mississauga, Ontario, brought together almost 45 participants from government agencies, nonprofit and advocacy organizations and academic institutions to confirm benefits, identify indicators to measure them, refine the team’s understanding about how the indicators might be used and help the team determine which indicators to select.

The Great Lakes benefits with the most interest include provision of drinking water, providing recreational opportunities, supporting public health, and providing grounding for culture and identity. The most frequently mentioned uses for these indicators were for policy advocacy work, and to inform and educate the public about water, target investments and demonstrate the value of investments.

After further indicator refinement, the team will select a set of indicators and from that, one or two sustainability indicators to pilot. Over the fall, the team will learn from the piloting process and develop an implementation plan that will be made public in 2020. The implementation plan may involve things such as monitoring the proportion of Great Lakes residents with access to affordable and safe drinking water or reporting on trends over time in social media posts (e.g., on Twitter or Instagram) that positively mention or show people using the Great Lakes for recreation.

Noah Webster
University of Michigan

Noah Webster is an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Picture of Raj Bejankiwar
Raj Bejankiwar
IJC

Rajesh Bejankiwar is a physical sciences officer at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.