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NASA Scientist: Undoing Great Lakes Progress Would Take Generations To Recover

File photo of Lake Erie at sunset. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

The fresh water of the Great Lakes is the lifeblood for our region, but in the future it may be seen as a lifeblood to other regions, too. That’s just one thought shared with me by Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist and Senior Water Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  He’s in Northeast Ohio as part of the Case Western Reserve University Think Forum lecture series, here to talk about whether we can solve the global water crisis.  So I asked him, how bad is the crisis, and can we solve it?

FAMIGLIETTI: “I think the global water crisis is far worse than most people imagine, because it includes both the water quality and water quantity components, and when you put those two together, I’m sorry to say it’s almost an unsolvable problem. And so what I like to tell people is not that we need to bury our heads, but that we need to learn how to manage our way through.  We’re not going to end it, but we can manage our way through.”

GANZER: “The Great Lakes make up about 20% of the freshwater supply, in volume, in the world.  How do the Great Lakes fit into this crisis? How does their health fit in?“

FAMIGLIETTI: “Well the health of course is very important, but from a quantity perspective you might imagine that there’s a giant bullseye that can be seen from space that’s sitting above the Great Lakes, meaning: it’s a target-area in a sense for the rests of the country. Because there’s so much fresh water,  you can imagine that 50 years from now, well we’re already talking about this, but 50 years from now there might actually be a pipeline that brings water from the Great Lakes to Phoenix.  I think that’s part of our future.”

GANZER: “So the protections that we have on who can draw from the Great Lakes Watershed, you think those will go away out of necessity?“

FAMIGLIETTI: “I think the only way that would happen would be with national intervention, and we actually lack that national water policy in this country. And I think that for these reasons, that we do have water in some places—the northern half of the country has a lot more water than the southern half—and so as the population grows, and as climate continues to change, we probably will have to move water from where it is to where it is not, and that will require some rethinking of some of these policies and laws.”

GANZER: “There has been tremendous effort over the decades to restore the Great Lakes to a healthier status that we see now, but we’re seeing in the new administration there are proposals to cut back on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, for example; there are proposals to cut back what the EPA can do, and the focus that the EPA has.  Just generally, can you talk about what impact this might have on the progress that we’ve seen in the Great Lakes, and overall water health?”

FAMIGLIETTI: “Well, I’m a child of the 60s and was raised with the birth of the environmental movement, and watching the rivers on fire, and all of that.  We’ve made so much progress, and we have so much momentum, and this current generation of young people is so interested in environmental science, and they’re very environmentally-aware, very committed to sustainability—it would be a huge mistake to undo all that fine work that’s been done.  I can’t emphasize really enough, that undoing the progress that we’ve made over the past decades would take generations to recover from.”

GANZER: “We’ve seen a number of officials coming into this administration being labelled as ‘climate-skeptics.’ A lot of your work has dealt with how climate change affects the water cycle, and affects our water cycle.  What does this…how do you accept this…”

FAMIGLIETTI: “*laughs* Resist. No, that’s the challenge.  The challenge is we have to educate.  You know I’m fundamentally an educator, and that means education and communication on both sides of the aisle.  As scientists, we present the facts, we present our findings, I go an extra step in terms of communicating and trying to make sure people understand what’s happening and what the implications are, and that’s really all you can do.  My role is to get the skeptics what I feel is the best information on my piece of the water pie.”

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.