By Rev. Dr. Sydney Morris*
HOUGHTON -- Lana Pollack, chair of the U.S. Section of the International Joint Commission, spoke on "Can Science Save the Great Lakes?" on Thursday, March 22, on the campus of Michigan Technological University. Speaking to over 100 people in Room 103 of the EERC, she emphasized the point that "public interest in change creates public policy; public policy drives changes in behavior and law."
Lana Pollack, chair of the U.S. Section of the International Joint Commission, delivered the World Water Day lecture, "Can Science Save the Great Lakes?" on March 22, 2012, at Michigan Tech. Her lecture lecture was sponsored by the university's Center for Water and Society and the Visiting Women and Minority Lecture Series. (Photo © and courtesy Emil Groth)
Pollack was appointed to the Commission by President Obama. An environmental advocate, she has served three terms in the Michigan Senate, creating the Polluter Pay Statute of 1990.
"There are a lot of smart people here with a lot of focus and intensity," she said in her opening remarks. "I am reminded of how much good public money and public institutions do, for the public good."
Pollack was invited by Michigan Tech's Center for Water and Society on the occasion of the World Water Day Lecture, which focuses on fresh water issues. She is current Chair of the U.S. Section of the International Joint Commission. Pollack is required to both uphold the U.S. constitution and attend impartially to the interests of the whole water system shared by Canada and the U.S., working at the intersection of water and society. Currently, about 50 percent of Commission time is spent on the Great Lakes.
Established in 1909 with the Boundary Waters Treaty, the Commission was to settle disputes about the distribution of quantities of water. It was charged with 4 areas: (1) agriculture, i.e., distribution and water flow rules (2) navigation (3) industry (4) personal recreational use.
Only one sentence on water quality was included in the treaty, Pollack noted: "Each country -- Canada and the United States -- each has the right to be protected from the pollution of its waters caused by the other country."
Spurred by the social movement of peace and civil rights in the 60s, public opinion formed the environmental movement. Lake Erie had been burning for more than a decade before the cover of Time magazine focused public concern. In a "culture of broader insistence" public interest drives change. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was made in 1978 and amended in 1987.
With the advent, after 1971, of wastewater treatment plants, phosphorous as PCBs in lake trout did indeed drop extensively. Lowest phosphorus levels were achieved in 1994, but they are now back up, due to unregulated farming practices.
"We cannot pursue agriculture the way we are doing it now and keep our Great Lakes," Pollack said.
Mercury levels dropped from 1971 until 2000 and are now starting to increase as policy is not adequate to transport and some historic issues, she explained. Levels of PBDE, used as fire retardant, was not under scrutiny until after 2000 and is now stable or declining. Lacking any policy, there were steadily increasing numbers of invasive aquatic species until policy regarding salt water exchange (emptying bilge holds) were put in place. The sea lamprey is 90 percent controlled, because of a policy limiting the hours of water release which incorporates the fact that sea lampreys are nocturnal.
Hundreds of millions of dollars of public money are spent on zebra mussels, lacking a policy of deterrence. Purple loosestrife is increasing. Tiny but significant is Diporeia, at the bottom of the food chain, which is not protected by policy; consequently 2011 saw the worst algal blooms in Lake Erie ever recorded.
Asian carp are a danger, though they may draw more public attention because as one policy maker said, "they are big and jump out of the water." Some $78 million is going into research for management of Asian Carp including biochemical, electric and water pressure approaches.
Drainage from proposed Kennecott mining projects in the U.S. and Canada pose serious threats to Lake Superior. Pollack questioned the company's safety controls, and said she sees the need for policy, since public policy moves behaviors into law and positive outcomes.
Climate change must be taken into account. Ice cover loss from 1972 to 2009 was reported to range from Lake Ontario at 78 percent to Lake Erie at 68 percent. Lake Superior lost 2nd to the most ice cover. Among other impacts, ice cover loss leads to increased winter damage and erosion.
After her World Water Day lecture, Lana Pollack speaks with members of the audience -- from left, Renn Lambert, graduate student in environmental engineering studying phosphorus in the Great Lakes; Rolf Peterson, Michigan Tech professor emeritus and co-director of the Isle Royale Wolf Moose Study; his wife and research assistant, Carolyn Peterson; and Dave Toczydlowski, researcher in biological sciences. (Photo © and courtesy Emil Groth)
"Why is science so disregarded concerning climate change?" Pollack asked the audience. Their comments included employment issues, fear of lifestyle changes, following the money trail, lack of education in scientific literacy, people feeling overwhelmed, short-range immediate thinking, and variability (confusing weather with climate), communication skills from the scientific community, funding of science by multinationals, religious disagreement (stewardship and dominion; the place of human agency in light of vastly increased human population numbers).
Despite 3,000 scientists representing national academies worldwide declaring climate change to be settled science, Pollack emphasized the "affirmative campaign" by industries to confuse the public. She pointed out two streams of information being given to the public: Scientific information comes over time as cautiously, as it should, while the coal and oil industries use billions of dollars to give a message of absolute certainty.
It is now time to pause, Pollack said, and think of earth's resources and how to allow future generations to flourish within the context of limited resources.
"I apologize to this generation," she said to the students, but added that their work and creativity is essential to shaping the future. "We are entering a really, really exciting period in a dynamic world with plenty of issues" for students to work on. From her perspective working with "two great free democracies," she feels that what we do to make ourselves heard is "entirely up to us."
Preceding the lecture by Lana Pollack, the Michigan Tech Center for Water and Society (CWS) sponsored a student poster session and competition to highlight the ongoing graduate research on water at Michigan Tech. Jacob Woolley, left, and William McSorley, both Michigan Tech seniors in geological engineering, are pictured here with the poster for their senior design project, "Locating Contamination Near the Torch Lake Superfund Site." Other students who worked on the project are Elliot Rouleau, Laura Schaner, Eric Shepeck, Andrew Reed, and Guokun Zhang. (Photo © and courtesy Emil Groth)*
During question time, a question was asked about future water wars. Pollack replied that she supported the water quality compact -- and would have supported even stronger, stricter language because of the "huge moral issues in access to clean fresh water that sustains life." The main value is that we must do a better job of conservation, she said. It is not just a matter of how many people have access to water, but how it is used. The real war is in learning to conserve and be more sustainable, to do better with less.
Another questioner wondered how priorities are established. Pollack replied that some is already done by limits and requirements in the Treaty. The Commission works on (1) water flow and (2) advising governments on how to make decisions about water. Over the next three years, they will focus on Lake Erie -- developing indicators of how to measure lake health (they are many sometimes conflicting indices) and facilitating outreach and dispersal of scientific information.
In response to a question about lake levels, for the study of which Pollack praised the work of many at Michigan Technological University, she added that it is too late to avoid lower lake levels. One "very rich field to study" is in investigating adaptations to the inevitable.
In answer to "Can Science Save the Great Lakes?" -- the question posed by the lecture -- Pollack emphasized that we need more than knowledge for the sake of knowledge. While science can predict and pose solution, science is "a necessary but not sufficient component" of saving the Great Lakes. We need public interest to bring about policies which will bring the desired outcomes toward the health and flourishing of the Great Lakes and of their peoples.
* Editor's Notes:
Keweenaw Now guest author Rev. Dr. Sydney Morris is the pastor of the Keweenaw Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Houghton.
Click here to see a video of Lana Pollack's World Water Day lecture, filmed by Emil Groth, photographer for the Michigan Tech College of Engineering. Noel Urban, Michigan Tech professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Water and Society, introduces the lecture and announces the winners of the graduate research poster contest.
Click here to see more photos of the students and their posters and to see names of the winners of the poster competition.
Editor's update: We have corrected our error in Dr. Pollack's statement on phosphorus and agricultural practices -- not mercury. This was an error in our original posting.