On a sunny afternoon in May, J. Carl Ganter, 44 years old, about 5 foot 10, maybe 160 pounds, shows up at the shore of Victoria Creek, in downtown Cedar, Michigan, to go for a canoe float. The scent of sausage drifts on the wind from the Bunting’s Market smokehouse a block away. Across the parking lot behind him, a lady shoves paper into a recycling dumpster. May grasses along the creek are vivid green with new growth, and the stream is high and lush from spring rains.
This shore is just a few miles from the now-mothballed Sugarloaf Mountain ski and golf resort, which Ganter’s mom and dad started in 1964 from a wooded knob and turned into what was, at one time, one of Michigan’s premier resorts. They left the business in 1982. Psychologically, socially, and of course, geographically, Victoria Creek is a long, long way from, say, Davos, where Ganter presented to a gathering that included the founder of Facebook and president of Nike, and it’s a long way from, say, rural China, where he shot dramatic images of farmers on parched land wondering where the water will come from to nurture their fields.
Ganter shoves off from the weathered dock and strokes the canoe downstream. In some ways, the surroundings are unremarkable, a broad estuary of marsh grass and scrub. But for many people of the world, especially the more than one billion people without safe water to drink, this place would be miraculous, a stream of clean, cool water that runs and runs and runs and never ever stops.
People intuitively understand the need to address the water crisis, Ganter explains as he shifts sides with the paddle. Just before the Copenhagen summit on climate change last fall, Circle of Blue conducted a survey that asked 1,000 people in each of 25 nations about their top environmental priorities. “Number one was water scarcity, and number two was water quality,” he says. “And this is when the news was totally dominated by climate change.”
After a bit, Ganter stops paddling and the canoe drifts to the bank. He shoves the paddle into the muck to anchor the boat under the May sun. Ten to 20 years from now, Ganter explains, he’d like to see Circle of Blue’s role as being central to finding solid, well-researched solutions to water problems, while also being an early warning system that helps avoid making the same mistakes over and over again—which he says is now the case.
“We talk about changing vectors,” he says. “Like an airplane flying toward a mountain. We can’t move the mountain, but we can change the direction of the flight. Our goal is to provide hope and solutions, and find the heroes,” Ganter says. “And heroes are there. Everywhere I’ve ever reported, in the worst slums of Mexico, in Bangkok—and I have found the worst you could imagine—I have also found inspiring heroes.”
He recalls being interviewed by a radio reporter in Australia. Off the air she told him her editor said listeners were tired of hearing about the big drought there, even though it continued to be a major crisis that is still affecting food prices around the world. And she herself was so torn.
“She told me that before she’d go on air sometimes, she’d cry in the bathroom because the news was so bad she feared another farmer would take his own life,” he says.
The water crisis presents challenges for a news organization because it has been in the media off and on for decades and will continue to be so and, if handled with too much rawness, it’s the kind of issue that could become, like the Australian editor believed, so bleak it would turn away the very audience needed to solve it. Or it becomes a steady drone that people just stop hearing.
Ganter pauses, his eyes angled to the sky. Absentmindedly, his hand strokes a clump of shore-side grasses, like you might pet a dog. “It will take political will and commitment, and we are so polarized,” he says. “But water is so universal that maybe we can come together. We have to.”
Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]