Guest Blog – Kirsten Lyons – Stewardship Director of Friends of the St. Clair River

lakeerie_oli_2014213The St. Clair River, after over 100 years of industrial use and neglect, has become environmentally degraded enough to earn the international designation of Area of Concern (AOC). We share this burden and a border with Canada. The organization I work for is Friends of the St. Clair River on the US side. There is a counterpart Friends group on the Canadian side. The two together form the Binational Public Advisory Council (BPAC) for this AOC. BPAC has been working for almost 30 years on developing a plan for remediating public health threats to our water quality and our river’s environmental and recreational restoration. Much of the action plan finally began to be implemented with the advent of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) in 2010. The program’s funding and technical support has enabled many AOC’s to begin to address critical water problems. We are hoping that the St. Clair River will be delisted as an AOC in the next few years. That, as our BPAC US Co-Chair Patty Troy often says, “will only bring us to the level at which we’re about as polluted as anywhere else.”

My role with the Friends of the St. Clair River US is Stewardship Director. I took the job this year in January after volunteering for the same organization since last summer. My boss, Sheri Faust, is the Friends Board President and is also the Environmental Health Educator for St. Clair County Health Department. When I reconnected with Sheri and her colleagues a couple of years ago through the vehicle of Earth Fair, I told some of my good friends that I had finally found my sustainability “peeps” in my own community. I had been working on sustainability challenges in Detroit. Well, actually, I still am to a small extent.

My Friends job is to provide programming & events, volunteer management & training, public outreach and education, and administrative support. We provide fun, educational activities to connect our community to our water resources. We believe a connected, empowered, knowledgeable community will be motivated to be good water stewards. Our feature project and the place I spend most of my time in the field is at the Blue Water River Walk in Port Huron. We have about 25 volunteer Stewards who are like my bosses and my staff all at the same time.

When Stacie Draher Dimick first told me that Margo was coming, I was super excited. I also wondered how the heck Stacie found out about this momentous visit, and why I was lucky enough to be notified. I decided to follow Margo along for a ways on on my bike, “popping up” here and there to wave at her. I wondered what Margo had already seen on her trip, and how the Blue Water area compared to other places she’s come to know. When I visit a new place I notice things the natives take for granted. I imagine Margo sees the things we no longer see. I was not wrong in this, and I was not entirely right, either.

The challenges that Margo pointed out in her blog posts about the Blue Water area–the invasive species, the refineries, the endless mowed turf to the water’s edge, and some industries that seem to mock our attempts at restoring the environment–they’re all here, of course. We tend not to see them as a SET of RELATED water quality issues because usually we only see, at most, one at a time on any given day, and we’re not really paying much attention anyhow. We think that if only Chemical Valley would clean up its act we would have clean water for everyone. We go back to mowing the vast lawns with our fossil fuel-powered machines and fertilizing it with petro-derived nutrients. We refuse, as individuals, to recognize our own culpability.

BPAC has done a good job of bringing water quality issues to the forefront and holding industry and government accountable. It’s time for us, as individuals, families and small groups, to recognize our role in water quality issues. That is what my job is all about; getting people to understand their own environmental impact. And maybe change it, dare I hope?

It’s also a problem of being upstream. “Where the benefits are realized is not where management actions need to be taken,” says Doug Pearsall, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy of Michigan. Our fertilizer, our chemicals, our sewage, our mercury emissions, and many other of our contaminants are swiftly carried downstream by the currents and winds that Margo was struggling so hard to paddle against.

What is our role, as planetary citizens in the Blue Water area, in the recovery of the western basin of Lake Erie? Why have we not asked ourselves this question before, or at least more often? Our every decision and action, as a community and as individuals, has an implication on our own health and that of our downstream neighbors. Even eating meat, eggs and dairy products, of which we consume far too much anyway, from factory farms fuels the algae crisis. How can we turn our backs on that?

Margo also saw the things that give us all hope, too. She saw the success and potential of our little towns and villages along the water. She recognized that when we place the environment at equal value with people and economy that great things are possible. My mantra since joining the Friends of the St. Clair River has been “We are all connected by water.” Margo’s voyage makes that very real for me.

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