Unique program helps Great Lakes leaders make big decisions, chart progress

A couple sits near the top of Arcadia Dunes, looking out at the lake.
The Great Lakes offer breathtaking scenery — such as this view from Arcadia Dunes, on the coast of Lake Michigan — and are a cornerstone of the region’s economy. Blue Accounting aims to improve management of Great Lakes water resources. Photo: Adam Stoltman

Managing the water resources of the Great Lakes is a monumental challenge — the lakes stretch from Minnesota to New York, hold one-fifth of all surface freshwater on the planet, provide drinking water for tens of millions of people, and support the world’s third largest regional economy.

Adding to the complexity of this mammoth undertaking: the five Great Lakes and their connecting waters are regulated by more than 100 different governmental, non-governmental and business entities — some of which have competing interests — that spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually in the United States and Canada. It’s a recipe for potential dysfunction.

Enter Blue Accounting, a new program and online platform that will provide a sophisticated suite of information services never available before in one place.

The data driven program is designed to help leaders and decision makers across the region manage the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem in a more collaborative and holistic manner. For the first time, they will share access to the most comprehensive data related to protecting ecosystems, safeguarding human health and bolstering the economy.

Launched with a $4 million grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Blue Accounting is an ambitious attempt to improve management of the Great Lakes by establishing regional goals and using metrics to measure progress. These metrics will inform leaders as they prioritize funding and drive actions in their states and cities.

“This is important infrastructure that needs to be built to better manage the Great Lakes ecosystem,” said Sam Passmore, director of the Mott Foundation’s Environment Program. “In the long run, it will be a success if decision makers regularly use this suite of services to make strategic choices aimed at improving the sustainability of the region.”

For years, government agencies in the U.S. and Canada have assessed the ecological health of the Great Lakes. That information has been underutilized as a tool for leveraging change, said Steve Cole, chief information officer at the Great Lakes Commission.

“We’re spending billions of dollars to restore and protect the Great Lakes, but there is an information gap: these investments are assessed on an individual basis, not on a regional basis,” Cole said. “Blue Accounting is a new way of thinking about how we measure progress and how we use that information to work toward collective, desired outcomes.”

The Nature Conservancy and the Great Lakes Commission have partnered to implement Blue Accounting. The program, which is expected to cost just over $8 million in its first five years, will be put to the test on three pilot projects:

  • In western Lake Erie, it will track progress in improving source water quality for municipal water systems, including reducing nutrient pollution that fuels toxic algae blooms.
  • In Great Lakes rivers, it will provide information that guides restoration of natural connections by removing dams and other barriers that block fish and disrupt ecosystems.
  • It will assist the development of more effective rapid response tools for confronting new invasive species discovered in the lakes.

In 2014, toxic algae blooms that were fueled by excessive nutrients in western Lake Erie forced a brief shutdown of Toledo’s water system. In the wake of the crisis, researchers discovered that similar conditions threatened municipal water supplies in several other Great Lakes communities.

Tracking progress to reduce nutrient pollution and reporting progress toward shared goals, such as the targeted 40% reduction in phosphorus loadings in western Lake Erie by 2025, will help decision makers proactively invest in mitigation programs across the basin.

“Toledo isn’t the only city whose drinking water has been affected by excessive nutrients in surface waters,” said Scott Sowa, science director for The Nature Conservancy. “The others just don’t get the attention that Toledo has, and this is exactly the reason we need Blue Accounting.”

Patrick Doran, Michigan associate state director for The Nature Conservancy, said collaboration is essential to realizing the full benefits of the service.

“Blue Accounting provides unprecedented access to critical information about the Great Lakes,” Doran said. “Legislators, leaders and scientists across the basin will need to use it early and often to foster collaborations that protect the water resources our region depends on.”

Officials at The Nature Conservancy and Great Lakes Commission are already working on Blue Accounting. They have launched the three pilot programs and are forming an advisory committee of Great Lakes leaders to monitor the project.

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