Understanding How Our Actions and Investments Make a Difference in the Great Lakes

Tawny Mata
Great Lakes Commission and The Nature Conservancy
December 07, 2018
children enjoying water shutterstock

Two countries, eight states, two provinces, and hundreds of counties, nongovernmental organizations and private businesses make decisions that affect the Great Lakes. These organizations generate an overwhelming wealth of data that tells us everything from how much phosphorus is in our water to how many tons of cargo traveled across the lakes. The challenge has been to understand what all that data tells us about the health of our water resources, and to use that to take efficient and coordinated action. We must find ways to work together on these issues that cross international, state and organizational boundaries. Blue Accounting is tackling that challenge.

Blue Accounting brings people and information together, helping the Great Lakes community track progress toward shared goals. The project, co-led by The Great Lakes Commission and The Nature Conservancy, translates existing data into relevant information so decision-makers and their staff can visit blueaccounting.org to understand how investments and actions are impacting the region.

Blue Accounting has its roots in a 2014 report to the Council of Great Lakes Governors (now the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers) that laid out a framework for a comprehensive approach to using water monitoring data to inform decisions. The Initiative officially took off in 2016, with a founding investment of $4 million from the Charles Steward Mott Foundation.

Blue Accounting is piloting the approach with five key issues: aquatic invasive species, coastal wetlands, maritime transportation, phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie and source water. The vision is a stakeholder-powered information delivery system where agency leaders, managers, policymakers and the public can view progress in each of these issues and find support for informed and collaborative decision-making.

children enjoying water shutterstock
Children enjoying the water. Credit: Shutterstock

Source Water Protection

The framework behind Blue Accounting is simple, but effective collaboration is complex. Take the issue of source water protection in the basin. First, we identified a balanced, binational group of water professionals. This includes representatives of state and federal agencies, local water authorities, municipalities, universities, business interests, and environmental nonprofits. Across our five pilot issues, each of which has its own collaborative group, we have more than 75 local, state, provincial, federal, non-governmental and private sector organizations.

Next, the group identified five shared goals for where they want to go, and shared metrics for how they're going to measure progress in improving source water protection. This translates many different interests into a common language for success.

One goal is for all public water supply systems to be guided by up-to-date management strategies designed to protect source water, and they are measuring progress toward this goal by tracking the number of people protected by a source water assessment and a protection plan.  A data visualization on the pilot’s results page represents the first effort to normalize naming conventions across jurisdictions’ source water protection approaches, providing an organized look at where source water comes from, how risks are assessed and whether plans are in place to address those risks.

blue accounting
Credit: Michael D-L Jordan/dlp

With shared goals and metrics in hand, the collaborative group identified strategies and investments being made to improve source water, providing context for how and why we are, or are not, making progress.

You can filter strategies and investments by jurisdiction and goal to understand the diversity of approaches being taken across the basin, such as how Minnesota has developed a Wellhead Protection Program and will allocate $617,000 in fiscal year 2018 to local public water systems implementing programs like this.

Because effective source water protection depends on local commitments and investment, we also are featuring the strategies of local communities that have voluntarily implemented innovative planning efforts. For example, you can learn about how the Fox-Wolf Watershed Alliance in Wisconsin is developing a GIS tool to track needed agricultural conservation practices, as well as current ones, to help target future grant proposals.

Blue Accounting synthesizes the data and information, then packages and delivers this information to tell a holistic story about source water protection in the basin.

You can walk through this source water story, from a high-level overview, to strategies, investments and results here. We will continue to enhance and expand this story and others based on stakeholder input and with new data.

Tawny Mata
Great Lakes Commission and The Nature Conservancy

Tawny Mata is an external affairs specialist serving a joint appointment with the Great Lakes Commission and The Nature Conservancy in Lansing, Michigan.