In an age of division, people of the Great Lakes continue to come together in a shared devotion to their vast, fresh waters.
This piece is featured in the July 2017 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
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In our culture a river is typically a boundary, differentiating one domain from another. The Mississippi River, for example, is the border of 10 states. There’s another way to look at a river—as the center of a basin, accepting and uniting all of its tributary waters. And its tributary people.
I’ve lived in several communities whose rivers and streams, acting like the solvent that water is, blurred or erased differences of age, ethnicity, and class. At certain times—say, summer evenings—these waters lured a cross-section of locals to trek their river walks, fish from their banks, boat or kayak their surface, or simply sit and enjoy their serene passage. No political tests were administered.
This is not a minor truth in an age of American division. As the right and left, the Republican and Democratic Parties, the environmentalists and the developers clash over almost everything—and often bitterly—I’ve seen quantitative and qualitative evidence that water washes away much of that rancor. Water, in short, is something people of all kinds want to protect. Nothing—not the division of human beings from the natural world, our tethering to gadgets, our exaltation of boundless economic growth—has dispelled our appreciation of water. Perhaps that’s because water is one of the relatively few things in the natural world that comes to meet us in our homes. Thanks to modern drinking water delivery systems, the only invitation that water needs to enter is by a twist of the faucet. And once it enters, it serves us in many ways. It is a hard heart that does not feel wonder, or at least gratitude, for this service—the magic of quenching our thirst, the mystery of dissolving stains.
Wonder also lives outdoors. Water makes music, carries us downstream, reflects light into art. Water doesn’t distinguish among us by political philosophy. We all get its benefits.
A recent arrival in the Traverse region, I don’t know much about the community yet, so I’m observing and listening. I take comfort from my initial impressions. Philosophies of government span left to right here, but philosophies of water meet in the middle. No one wants to watch our rivers and lakes deteriorate or dry up. Everyone here, it seems, enjoys those rivers and lakes, and makes use of them in one fashion or another. That gives me hope.
Another cause for hope is the absence of complacency. It would be understandable if this community took its water riches for granted. Even the most beautiful of environments can become a stale backdrop if it’s present every day. I don’t see that here. The poets and musicians sing of it, the nonprofits educate and work to protect it—and especially when it comes to the Great Lakes, there is virtual unanimity about the need for stewardship.
My new professional home is FLOW, For the Love of Water. It’s a water law and policy center, with offices on Front Street in Traverse City, dedicated to upholding the public’s rights to use and bene t from the Great Lakes and its tributaries. I’m hopeful that the work of FLOW will tap into the protectiveness people of all origins and beliefs feel toward water.
Here’s a good sign such universal protectiveness exists. Recent focus groups of Trump voters in the Great Lakes region agreed that water is the most precious resource, universally ranking above other environmental concerns. In one group, water quality and water pollution were the top-rated environmental problems.
But at the same time, we need to bolster water knowledge. Sponsored by the International Joint Commission, a survey of 3,950 residents of the Great Lakes watershed in November and December 2015 is a vivid illustration. Eighty-five percent of those polled said it is essential to protect the Great Lakes from threats. But the respondents, citizens of all eight Great Lakes states and Ontario, had trouble putting their fingers on answers to basic questions. For example, when asked to “name anything that you feel may pose a threat to the lakes and rivers that surround and feed into the Great Lakes,” the largest fraction, 24%, answered “don’t know.”
We can do better. And we will. The affinity we feel for water is the foundation for learning.
“The life in us is like the water in a river,” Thoreau said. Just as we share life, we share water, and a love of it. In these divided times, water has the potential to unite.
Dave Dempsey is senior advisor for FLOW and a former policy advisor for the International Joint Commission. He is the author of seven books. [email protected]