Great Lakes steamer, 1967

[imgcontainer] [img:IMGGreatLakesSteamer1967co.jpg] Great Lakes steamer, 1967 [/imgcontainer]

My grandfather Neil A. Collins died August 30, 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression. He was 42. A Cleveland attorney and a sportsman in Lorain, Ohio, Grandfather Collins loved the waters of the Great Lakes. He loved the lakes as an economic opportunity, too. When he died, he was a board member of the then-new Lorain Port Authority and honorary member of the Lorain Yacht Club. He also had been a member of the Cleveland Yacht Club. I keep a pull rope from one of his boat motors in our family “shrine.”

It turns out my grandfather and I share a common interest in regional and community development. A couple of weeks before his death, he took a steamboat trip to Duluth, Minnesota, to attend a board meeting of the Great Lakes Harbors Association. The association joined states and Canadian provinces to pursue common economic development interests, especially opening up the St. Lawrence River so Great Lakes cities would have global access. His dream finally became a reality in 1959 with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Different times bring different perspectives. I, too, am working toward regional development, but with rural community sustainability foremost in mind. I hope to put environmental considerations ahead of traditional economic development, where environmental considerations are viewed as a cost, rather than savings that benefit future generations.

Given that the Great Lakes Harbors Association was also concerned about excess water withdrawal, I wonder how my grandfather would feel about the Great Lakes Compact, signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 3, 2008. (This signing came just a year shy of the 2009 centennial of the Boundary Waters Treaty, designed to help resolve disputes between Canada and the United States concerning water quality and quantity along our boundary.)

According to the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, the 2008 Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact is a legally binding agreement among the eight Great Lake states (and includes a nonbinding agreement with the Canadian Great Lakes provinces). It is intended to prevent most diversions of Great Lakes water out of the region and to establish new regional water conservation and environmental protection standards. The standards advance water use law, including uniform treatment of ground and surface water withdrawals, water conservation, return flow, and prevention of negative environmental impacts.  

[imgcontainer right] [img:GreatLakes-Resolution2.jpg]The Great Lakes Resolution. [/imgcontainer]

From my perspective, the Great Lakes compact opens the way to imagining new watershed (river valley) governments in the United States. Along with its legal significance, the compact exemplifies how important it is that urban and rural communities work together on water quality and quantity, transportation, and recreation. Its success hinges on state and local efforts to follow its guidelines. 

The idea of local and regional governments arranged along watersheds may seem far-fetched, but from an environmental perspective, it’s practical – even necessary. A recent study from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reveals regional connections in the Mississippi-Atchafalaya river basin watersheds. Nitrogen runoff from fertilizer contributes hypoxia (oxygen deprivation that causes a dead zone); this is a significant problem in an estimated 3000 to 7000 square-mile swath of the Gulf of Mexico beyond the Mississippi River Delta. USGS notes that while it can identify which watersheds are pouring the most nutrient (fertilizer) into the Gulf of Mexico, “this large-scale approach may not address nutrient management needs to protect streams and reservoirs at a local scale.”

It is time to move beyond watershed planning bodies and associations, which do good works but have limited clout and authority. We need legally to revamp relationships among states and communities that share watersheds in order to improve governance. Even without changes in federal law, states could, at a minimum, rearrange the boundaries and powers of localities to focus on their relationships within watersheds.

Watershed government would offer a more geographically natural way for communities to focus on sustainability, so that they both take into account the larger context of downstream consequences of their everyday activities and work at improving upstream and cross-stream interconnections between rural and urban areas. Watershed governments would follow the natural path of water. Rather than delimiting themselves with survey lines – like those used to lay out square townships in the Midwest — rural communities at the head of a waterway would become municipalities based on topography.

Watershed municipalities would be members of state-chartered watershed assemblies: legally constituted, regional, quasi-municipal bodies with professional administrators and staff responsible to elected representatives from the various sub-watershed (community-based) municipalities up and downstream. State watershed assemblies would be granted powers by legislatures to govern watersheds with respect for the environment, including raising revenue to share among municipalities up and downstream.  State legislative lines could be drawn to include consideration for watersheds, along with proportional representation in the legislature.

[imgcontainer left] [img:NeilACollinsondeck.jpg] My grandfather, on board. [/imgcontainer]

How could watershed projects benefit both rural and urban areas? Such cooperation would help to reclaim wetlands, aid in flood and pollution control, limit floodplain development, protecting endangered species and better control invasive species. Watershed municipalities could also build recreational facilities and improve locks and dams for transportation. Where needed, they could assist fish migration and set up conditions to reintroduce commercial fishing, enhancing ecotourism opportunities. If ecological conditions were favorable, they could also raise revenue through hydroelectric power generation.

Granted, watershed government would be a tough political sell, but drawing new watershed boundaries would be easy in terms of geography. (The political complications of redrawing municipal lines along watersheds could become nightmarish for areas located in more than one significant river valley.)

Environmental educators often discuss watershed awareness not only for local sustainability but as a recognition of our connections with one another and the environment. This is important, as Iowa has found out. After several historic floods in the past 15 years or so, Iowa begun to emphasize the rural and urban linkages along watersheds. A recent edition of Iowa Public Television’s The Iowa Journal examines the impacts of the floods and efforts to develop regional flood control that include conservation practices to retain water on farmlands in times of heavy rains. These practices reduce soil erosion and runoff of fertilizers and pesticides, while protecting people and property in cities and towns downstream.

The lessons from Iowa and the USGS watershed model are that larger environmental problems have local and regional roots. Just as Grandfather Collins recognized the larger implications of Great Lakes harbors development for communities, his grandson recognizes the larger implications of watersheds in connecting rural and urban communities to create a more sustainable society. (I hope I’m doing him proud.) 

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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