After five years, the time has come for me to end my service as a US Commissioner for the IJC. “My dream’s dream job” is often how I described this incredible opportunity bestowed upon me by President Obama and the US Senate. I have accepted the position of executive director of the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency, charged with managing the solid waste system including waste reduction, composting, recycling, disposal, and energy generation for my local community in Syracuse, New York. I depart the Commission on Labor Day 2016.
The Commission, with offices in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa and Windsor, Ontario, is blessed with talented, hard-working staff, thoughtful and courageous Commissioners, and a depth of expertise contained within more than 20 international boards that keep the Commission informed and fulfill its responsibilities along the Canada-US border. I am truly grateful for what each member of the IJC family contributes to the betterment of shared transboundary waters, from science to policy to developing tools for smarter decision-making. The IJC leverages the best of each country in fulfilling the spirit of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.
Good water diplomacy is about long-term, on-the-ground relationships, sound science, and acute geographic awareness. Respecting the multiple uses and users of water during high, average, and low flows requires ongoing efforts to prevent disputes and ensure constructive collaboration across multiple local, state, provincial, and national jurisdictions. As a binational organization that operates “arm’s length” from the Canadian and US governments, the IJC is able to transcend politics and remain focused on science and long-term needs. It is best suited to provide third-party verification to critical investments and policy decisions that impact water quality and water flow issues along our beautiful boundary.
In these past five years, I have visited with communities, seen the incredible landscapes and swum in our shared waters from Osooyos to Maine. I have watched communities inundated by floods experience drought the following year. The drought to deluge pendulum seems to be swinging faster than ever as the climate gets warmer year after year. Conflicts are not going away and they require continued attention, good data and smarter science. Valuing the resilience provided by natural ecosystems like wetlands and floodplains, and the benefits of water level fluctuations can help communities better live with transboundary rivers and lakes as global forces double down on the local stressors that already exist.
I am proud of the work the IJC has advanced in these past five years. In particular, the harmonization of hydrographic geographic data is a game-changer. A picture is worth a thousand words and maps provide valuable information, regardless of one’s native tongue. Having a seamless, geographically accurate border with delineated transboundary watersheds provides the public and managers with essential knowledge for decision-making.
A long-term view on Great Lakes water level management also is an ongoing need, which is why the IJC established the Great Lakes Adaptive Management Committee (GLAM) in 2015 to support the IJC’s Great Lakes boards of control. For almost 100 years, the governments have routinely tasked the IJC with in-depth studies on Great Lakes water levels and flows, typically prompted by high or low water events. Maintaining and continually improving this data and calibrated models leverages the investment by the Canadian and American people to ensure the most up-to-date knowledge is available to best inform effective management of control structures at the St. Marys, Niagara, and St. Lawrence Rivers over time.
I often say we are in the age of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. It is important to understand the individual parts of a complex system, like water quality and water quantity. It is equally important to understand how those two significant factors impact the system as a whole. The IJC, through its International Watersheds Initiative and related work, has taken a more unified approach to water management by removing unnecessary blinders that previously kept water quality and water quantity in separate silos.
For instance, the reimagined Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board, launched in 2012, builds upon a century of history and is best equipped to tackle multiple challenges—from a growing toxic algal bloom problem to record flooding—with broad-based local participation from all ends of the watershed, including First Nation, Métis and Tribal members and a balance of government and non-government members.
The renewal by Canada and the US of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 2012 embodies this thinking. It embraces the principles of adaptive management, prevention and precaution, while recognizing the role of groundwater and water quantity in influencing the swimmability, fishability, and drinkability of North America’s largest available fresh surface waters, and valuing meaningful public engagement.
There is much left to do. Modernizing water level management for Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River water levels and flows is long overdue. There is no doubt that climate change is already influencing water quality and levels, along with increased land disturbance from intensified agriculture, new and expanding mining, and growing population centers. By working together and with nature as opposed to against her, and improving our understanding of these complex systems, local communities and governments at all levels can be better prepared to steward our shared waters for peace and prosperity for the rest of this century and centuries to come.