On the Great Lakes Horizon

LimnoTech and its project partner, RAND Corporation, have prepared this report summarizing the process and results of the project titled, “On the Great Lakes Horizon: Scenarios, Opportunities, Threats, and Responsive Governance”. The study was performed for a work group (WG) of the International Joint Commission Water Quality Board (IJC-WQB). The Great Lakes Horizons project was a binational effort conducted for the IJC to explore future drivers of societal health and water quality in the Great Lakes basin. As one of the major unifying elements in the lives of people in the region, the lakes serve not only as a resource to be stewarded and enjoyed but also as common ground from which to approach decisions impacting the future.

Through this project, IJC has sought to promote conversations around future drivers of change in the region, including both threats and opportunities. Four categories of drivers were considered: societal values, governance, and geopolitics; population, economic development, and trade; climate change and infrastructure; and biological, ecological, and chemical systems.

By beginning to identify these drivers and consider their hypothetical outcomes, leaders in the region will be better equipped to influence their direction and impacts. Questions that have been posed and that have helped guide the project include:

  • Which drivers of change do subject matter experts in the region consider to be of greater significance regarding water quality and health outcomes?
  • Which drivers do regional leaders expect to be able to influence most strongly?
  • What are some management strategies for influencing these drivers toward desirable outcomes for stakeholders?
  • What are the current gaps or limitations in the region’s ability to influence outcomes?
  • How can the IJC use the future scenario narratives developed in this project to help inform and engage wider circles about these issues?

The first phase of the project included: 1) a literature review related to recent trends in Great Lakes environmental driver conditions, 2) a symposium during which trends and threats were ranked and prioritized by a group of subject matter experts, and 3) system mapping to produce causal loop diagrams that help depict the concepts discussed during the symposium. The project then moved to engagement with Great Lakes leaders from diverse backgrounds and locations to develop hypothetical management strategies that could influence drivers and outcomes. The last phase of the project had members work together to define scenarios that will help communicate conceptions of potential future conditions to wider audiences so that residents of the region will understand the value of preparing for and acting to influence changes in the region.

Discussions during the project focused on drivers of change that not only have a greater likelihood of occurring and impacting society, but also that the region has greater potential to influence. These especially include factors that will potentially impact large land areas, or drive large water uses or population changes. Examples include changes in agricultural intensity, irrigation, and type due to climate change and ownership transitions; transitions of agricultural land for solar and wind energy development; changes in population due to immigration to the Great Lakes; and shifts in relative growth rates and political representation in the Great Lakes compared to other areas with potential future water shortage crises.

The report contains the following components:

  • An introduction to the Great Lakes Horizons project and related literature and information on environmental drivers;
  • A narrative description of discussion topics from the project symposium during which regional subject matter experts explored and prioritized drivers of change;
  • A description of gaps and limitations that may limit the degree to which regional leaders can influence change;
  • Results of regional engagement sessions;
  • Narrative and pictorial depictions of four creative scenarios of better or worse future states of the Great Lakes (Figure 1) and descriptions of signposts and monitoring to determine trajectories along the paths to future (2053) states of the system; and
  • Recommendations on how to move forward in the near term to enhance the probability of positive outcomes in the longer term.

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This report is part of the RAND external publication series. Many RAND studies are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as chapters in commercial books, or as documents published by other organizations.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND’s publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.

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