Great Lakes: Where’s the justice?

lakefront25p4Do you dream of being Gwen Ifill or John Stewart? I don’t, but nonetheless I recently had a chance to moderate a panel as part of Great Lakes Week. The team, assembled by Associate Professor McGee Young of Marquette University and co-sponsored by The Water Council, included noted author Charles Fishman, Surabhi Shah, Director of EPA’s Urban Waters Program and Carrie Bristoll-Groll, Principal Civil Engineer of Stormwater Solutions Engineering. Great Lakes Week had dozens of panels and headline speakers for people to choose from, but our panel had a unique charge: to reflect on the “future of the Great Lakes as seen through the lens of ecological justice.”

marquetteAs it turns out, that is more easily said than done. Compared to the gut-wrenching stories of Sub-Saharan Africa, where women walk miles (or should I say, kilometers) to fetch their families’ water, or to the water wars that broke out after Bolivia privatized its water supply, the challenges of the Great Lakes — where the fresh water reservoir is so vast the far shore is beyond what the eye can see — seem trivial.  Or perhaps they are just invisible.

When I think of social justice in the Great Lakes, and the Milwaukee region in particular, the first thing that comes to my mind are the many industries and jobs that are built on access to water: brewing, mining, paper manufacturing, power generation, shipping, tourism, research and more. And then I wonder about who has access to the profits, wealth and skilled employment that those enterprises bring. Is that wealth equitably distributed? Do all sectors of our regional society benefit reasonably equally from the money machine that the Great Lakes represent? Based on who I see at Water Council events versus who lines up for a free meal at The Guest House, I hypothesize that the answer is “no.”

When the fertilizers favored by golf course managers and lovers of green lawns make their way into our lakes and rivers, resulting in toxic algae blooms, does that affect all segments of society equally? Do those with access to pools or vacation get-aways “pay” for beach closures in the same way as those for whom a picnic at Bradford Beach is as exotic as it gets?

And when our failing infrastructure leaves the poorest residents of Milwaukee with disproportionately high water bills, is that social justice? When water gets turned off because of failure to pay, and people lose custody of their children, as has happened in Detroit, is that social justice?

When kids in poor neighborhoods have no stream to dip their toes into on a sweltering summer day, because their streams are buried in pipes a few feet underground, is that social justice? Does the answer change when we think about the urban heat island effect and who contributes to it the most?

As moderator, I tried repeatedly to bring the conversation back to social justice, but as I cast my line over and over again, the closest we could come was when Waukesha’s application for a Great Lakes diversion came up toward the end of the discussion. There are many aspects to this heated issue, but one that gets very little consideration is who will pay for the pipeline and pumps if they are built and then not needed? Technology is changing so rapidly that Waukesha already has options that it didn’t have five years ago. Other cities are pioneering the use of recycled water and grey water. Household appliances continue to become much more water efficient, and native landscaping is becoming more prevalent, leading to a national downward trend in water use. Waukesha’s application is predicated on significant growth in water demand, but other regions of the country are experiencing flat or declining water use, even as population grows. How will this play out in Waukesha? What if the pipeline is obsolete shortly after completion? Will that debt affect everyone equally?  Is there a social justice angle to the diversion application?

As moderator, I can get away with not knowing the answers.  But I need to ask the questions.  Maybe then the issues won’t be quite so invisible.

If you missed the panel discussion, you can find it online at Wisconsin Eye.

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