Great Lakes: Do We Know Enough to Protect Them?

This article was submitted by Dave Dempsey, a writer and natural resources specialist. Dave has been involved in environmental policy since 1982 and is the author of two Michigan Notable Books.

Are citizens of the Great Lakes basin victims of an age of overabundant information and not-so-abundant time to absorb it?

Lake Michigan Coastline
Lake Michigan Coastline

Or, even though millions of us are living amidst nearly one-fifth of the world’s surface freshwater, do we get too little information and knowledge to understand how to protect them?

Those are two of the questions raised by a recent public opinion survey undertaken on behalf of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board of the International Joint Commission (IJC).  The poll, considered one of the largest of its kind ever in the Great Lakes watershed and conducted last November and December, sampled 3950 people in the eight Great Lakes states and Ontario.  While the level of public concern about the Great Lakes measured by the survey was encouraging, many respondents had only general answers, or no answers, to key questions about problems facing the ecosystem.

For example, when respondents were asked to name – without being given options to choose from – the most significant problems currently facing the Great Lakes, the leading answer was “don’t know.”  That response came from 31% of respondents.  Next in line was “pollution” in general at 20%.

Round Goby (neogobius melanostomus)
Round Goby
(neogobius melanostomus)

When asked to name anything that might pose a threat to the waterways surrounding and flowing into the Great Lakes, the leading response of those surveyed was “don’t know” at 24%, followed by invasive species at 23%.

David Ullrich, the U.S. co-chair of the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, said he was disappointed with the lack of awareness of water quality issues.

“Those of us who are working around the Great Lakes need to do a better job of communicating with the public,” he said. “There’s a lot of technical information about the Great Lakes that we need to a better job of distilling down. We need to produce a lot less quantity but better quality information to the public. ”

But it’s also possible to look at the glass as half-full.  Seventy-seven percent of the sample called it very important to protect the Great Lakes Basin and only 10% said it’s unimportant.

“The public clearly recognizes both an economic and quality of life value to improving the health of the Great Lakes,” observes Joan Chadde, director of Michigan Technological University’s Center for Science & Environmental Outreach. “The public also recognizes that they have a role to play in Great Lakes protection.  They depend upon government agencies, scientists, and other specialists to keep them informed and to take actions on behalf of the Great Lakes.”

Beach Advisory
Beach Advisory

As Chadde suggests, a place to begin building better understanding of the state of the Great Lakes appears to be housed in a stewardship ethic.  The survey found that 78% of respondents believed individuals or their households have an important role to play in protecting the Great Lakes.  More information is needed, however; 30% didn’t know what they could do to be better stewards.  Of those who offered an answer, the leading response was properly disposing of waste or recycling, at 19%.

It’s significant that climate change did not come up when IJC survey respondents were asked to name the most significant problems facing the lakes or the waterways that feed them.  While undoubtedly many of the 3950 people who answered questions know and are worried about climate change, it occurred to virtually none to link it to the waters of the Great Lakes basin.

Given the prominent news coverage that Great Lakes issues attract, and the fact that the Great Lakes are embedded in the DNA of the region’s residents, why don’t members of the public have more specific knowledge about them?

One answer may be too much input.  Is there so much information flooding our brains that we can’t retain it – or focus?  A 2012 paper estimated Americans consumed about 1.3 trillion hours of information outside of work, an average of almost 12 hours per person per day. Media consumption amounted to an estimated 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for the average person on an average day.  In that ocean of information, even lakes the size of Superior may get lost.

South Otter Creek
South Otter Creek

What all the numbers above tell us is people love the Lakes, but they don’t know as much as they should about them. Knowledge is a necessary precursor to action, and without citizen action, the Great Lakes are vulnerable to decline

Can schools further strengthen the teaching of Great Lakes concepts and science?  Can we equip young people to take lifelong action as Great Lakes stewards?

Michigan environmental education experts are trying to answer that question.  A team consisting of faculty from Michigan Technological University, Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University, and Michigan Sea Grant is assessing the state of Great Lakes education in Michigan.

MDNR Researchers & Lake Michigan Walleye

The team will then make recommendations for enhancing K-12 education, including how to produce “Great Lakes literacy” while boosting traditional academic performance.  The project defines Great Lakes literacy as understanding essential Great Lakes principles and fundamental concepts, and being able to make responsible decisions, communicate accurately and take positive stewardship actions with regard to the Great Lakes.

Knowledge about specific Great Lakes threats and individual stewardship actions may be lacking, but the IJC survey signals that there’s widespread affection for the lakes and a wish that they be restored and protected. If educators succeed in strengthening Great Lakes literacy in years to come, this precious aquatic ecosystem will stand a much better chance of flourishing well into the future.

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