I just got home from an incredible event in Rochester, New York, the fourth Great Lakes tour stop. Maude Barlow, National Chairperson for the Council of Canadians, has been touring around the Great Lakes speaking out about threats to the Great Lakes and what we need to do to stop them once and for all. We began the Great Lakes tour last year where we visited eight cities and continued the tour this year with events already in Duluth, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids.
Wayne Howard, Linda Isaacson Fedele, Kate Kremer and Peter Debes of Rochester Sierra Club, Eric and Jim Olson from FLOW for water along with the support of Cool Rochester, Monroe Community College and Rochester Institute of Technology, did an incredible job organizing a thought-provoking and inspiring event.
On Thursday night Maude gave a riveting talk to a captivated audience of 300 about the serious threats plaguing the Great Lakes including fracking, pollution, low water levels and inequitable extraction. Recognizing the amazing work that groups have been doing to protect the lakes for decades, she outlined a needed shift in decision- and policy-making around the Great Lakes and outlined a framework on how to effectively address the threats to Great Lakes, so we’re not simply fighting one fight after another.
Maude put forward a vision of the Great Lakes that protects a community’s right to say ‘no’ to projects harmful to water sources, incorporates community input into decision-making and prioritizes communities’ rights to water over private interests. These ideas form the basis of the notion that the Great Lakes are a commons and public trust. The notion of the commons, a very old concept, states that certain resources — such and air and water — are shared resources which people within a community have the collective obligation to protect. The public trust doctrine outlines governments’ obligations to protect these shared resources for community use from private exploitation.
After Maude’s talk, she was joined by Jim Olson from FLOW, Roger Downs from Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter and David Klein from the Nature Conservancy for an engaging panel discussion and to answer the audience’s questions. Jim Olson, an expert in the public trust doctrine, stressed that private rights cannot subordinate public rights.
Rochester was an important community to host a tour stop because of the water issues they’re facing. There are plans to ship fresh water by train from the region for fracking projects in Pennsylvania. Mountain Glacier, a subsidary of Nestle, is bottling water from Lake Hemlock as well as the municipality’s water. Similar to what happened in Niagara Falls, there is talk about the possibility of Monroe County, which Rochester is a part of, treating fracking wastewater.
Communities in New York state are incredibly active in the fight to protect water sources, public health and the environment against fracking. With approximately 200 municipal resolutions, New York state has by far the most resolutions on fracking in the U.S. Community groups and fracking coalitions have been successful in keeping a moratorium on fracking in New York state where delays in a health study are stalling Governor Cuomo’s already delayed decision on whether to lift or continue the moratorium. There have been recent calls for the environmental impact assessment to be scrapped because of Ecology and Environment and other consultations’ links to the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York.
Yesterday morning Maude and Jim outlined the principles of the commons and public trust respectively and set the context for the day-long workshop where 50 engaged participants applied them to local issues. I gave a short presentation of examples of our work on the commons and public trust. An ongoing case with Nestle, which we’re parties to, is an exciting opportunity for the public trust doctrine to be recognized by the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal. I also talked about two municipal resolutions in Burnaby and Niagara-on-the-Lake that respectively recognize water as a commons and the Great Lakes are a shared commons and public trust.
I am heartened and inspired by the enthusiasm and openness of the people we met in Rochester to embrace the needed shift in the framework governing the Great Lakes, one that will rightfully prioritize the protection of the lakes above all else. With many governments failing to protect community watersheds, the commons and public trust principles are crucial to changing people’s relationships to water, to one of responsibility and stewardship and holding our governments to account so they protect water sources for today’s and future generations. People within communities like Rochester are the catalysts for this change and it is in them that I place my faith and hope that we will save the Great Lakes.