New ‘Great Lakes’ Commissioners Focus on Water Quality

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Kevin Bunch
December 12, 2019
Lickers Sisson

Commissioners Henry Lickers and Rob Sisson both took their oaths of office in May, the two of them linked by growing up along the shores of the Great Lakes basin: Sisson off of Lake Michigan and Lickers along the St. Lawrence River. The two also are connected by a deep sense of the importance of clean water and a healthy environment.

Lickers: A Life with the Water

Lickers is a Haudenosaunee (an indigenous confederacy of six nations) citizen of the Seneca Nation, and was born on the Grand River, near the Six Nation Reserve by Brantford, Ontario. After going to school to become a biologist, he helped establish the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne’s (MCA) Department of Environment in 1976 – only a few short years after the United States founded the Environmental Protection Agency and Canada established Environment Canada – and would go on to become its director.

“Our people have been working on these (environmental issues) as long as the governments of Canada and the United States,” Lickers said.

At the department, Lickers said their concerns were initially focused on environmental issues surrounding the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, expanding outward to human health, large ecosystems and indigenous peoples’ place in the environment. It was against this backdrop that Lickers first learned of the IJC, around 1980 through its then-active Air Quality Board.

At the time, MCA had issues with excessive fluoride coming from the United States into its community, and presented the Air Quality Board with its data. The IJC followed up with the governments of Canada and the United States, which Lickers said led to a continuous working relationship between the MCA and IJC. The IJC first approached the Council about having representation on the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board of Control and later its Great Lakes Science Advisory Board – which Lickers joined. He served three terms on the board, the most recent ending with his appointment to the Commission in May.

“It’s not like the government made us do this,” Lickers said. “It’s more like we’re friends working together for a common vision: the protection of the waters. That’s near and dear to the hearts of the Haudenosaunee, and I’m sure to the IJC as well.”

While Lickers is the first indigenous person to be named a Commissioner, he said the IJC’s work alongside indigenous nations and communities and including indigenous membership on its boards over the past 50 years means both countries and the organization have acknowledged the importance of indigenous knowledge and support for managing the transboundary region.

“I know in Canada we’re talking about truth and reconciliation,” he said. “The work we’ve done over the past 40 years is what true reconciliation is. It’s saying ‘You’re valuable to us as native people, not just useful to us … The things you bring to the table, they may be different from everybody else’s but can help us with the problems we have.’ What more can you have as friendship?”

Sisson: Protecting Waterways

For much of his life, Sisson has been acutely aware of how important protecting and restoring water quality is to communities, cultures and the environment.

“I grew up in Michigan, and have the Great Lakes running through my veins,” Sisson said.

His work with the Great Lakes and environmental issues started in the late 1990s. Sisson said that while living in Kalamazoo around 1998 he read a newspaper article about ConservAmerica, a non-governmental organization that advocates for conservation and environmental protection, and favors environmental laws with bipartisan support. The organization appealed to him, and within two months of sending in a dues-paying check he was running the Michigan chapter as a volunteer. He formally joined the staff in 2006, eventually becoming the president in 2009.

Within that organization and even while running the Michigan chapter, Sisson worked on issues involving the Great Lakes and public lands, notably through advocating proper funding of the US Land and Water Conservation Fund. A chunk of this work involved educating members of Congress about the funding needed to properly protect areas from negative developmental impacts, he said.

Meanwhile, Sisson also was working in local government. From 2003 through 2016, he served on the City Commission in Sturgis, Michigan, save for a two-year period as mayor. Sturgis is located near tributaries that connect to Lake Michigan, which includes a hydroelectric dam on the St. Joseph River. And like many communities along the transboundary, Sisson said they had challenges with aging water infrastructure that was no longer adequate.

“We were seeing more severe storm events, and our system just couldn’t handle that,” Sisson said. “We were seeing areas of town flood that had never flooded before. We had one intersection that would flood, and water would get under the pavement and break it apart.”

With stormwater – and the municipal water system – heading right into the lake, Sisson said they started experimenting with ways to reduce runoff and flood events within their budget. These included testing permeable asphalt, which allows precipitation to pass through and be absorbed by the earth under the pavement instead of running off; and rain gardens, which help retain water and keep it out of the stormwater system. All of these lessons have followed Sisson to his role as an IJC Commissioner.

Sisson said he was well aware of the IJC for years, and during the transition period following the 2016 presidential election, was advised by several people to seek out a spot on the Commission due to his experience in municipal government and knowledge of broader conservation and environmental issues.

New Commissioners, new and old challenges

commissioners ottawa oct 19
IJC Commissioners in Ottawa in October. Commissioner Lickers is on the far left, and Commissioner Sisson the far right. Credit: IJC

When six new Commissioners took their oaths in May, they were immediately playing catch up on a variety of issues across the transboundary – some old and some new. From high water levels and flooding in the Great Lakes and a potential dam decommissioning in the St. Croix River, to dry conditions in the Pacific Northwest, Commissioners have been busy traveling across the continent.

“I haven’t spent more than two full weeks at home,” Sisson quipped.

Health is a key priority for Lickers – both human health and the health of the boundary water regions as a whole. He also is interested in integrating traditional and community ecological knowledge into the science the IJC does, and ensuring it has a role in the Commission’s decision-making and recommendations.

Right before he was confirmed by the US Senate, Sisson moved to Montana, which he notes has its own unique challenges compared to the Great Lakes (such as water apportionment in a drier landscape like the St. Mary and Milk Rivers) as well as some familiar ones (water quality and contamination). The IJC has only received water quality references from the governments for some of the transboundary watersheds covered by the Boundary Waters Treaty, and asking governments to fill in those gaps is a priority for Sisson.

And an issue already impacting transboundary communities is climate change, affecting everything from the amount of precipitation falling on the Great Lakes basin to the glaciers that feed the St. Mary River in Montana. Lickers said water levels across the transboundary have been occupying much of the Commission’s time since he came on board, and Sisson added that a major challenge for Commissioners is considering how best to prepare IJC activities for climate change and how to inform the parties – Canada and the United States – to act on climate change.

“It’s been a steep learning curve,” Lickers said.

Individual Commissioners often have specifics topics they want to look into, but these do not represent the views or priorities of the Commission until adopted by the Commission as a whole. 

The IJC will be profiling Chairs Beland and Corwin in an upcoming newsletter edition. See a profile on Commissioners Phare and Yohe from the November issue of our quarterly Water Matters newsletter.

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Kevin Bunch

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.