It’s taken 16 years of building legal cases and water literacy tools for us to uncover the secret ingredient to restoring our Great Lakes. Our team has known this secret for a while now, but only recently did we start validating it by listening to people through the Watermark Project.
The secret ingredient to restoring our Great Lakes is: Recreation - especially low-intensity recreation.
The secret to protecting water
Over the years, we’ve learned that sharing stats alone - e.g. 20% of the world’s freshwater, 40 million people’s drinking water, economic worth of over $7 trillion, etc. - are not saving our Great Lakes. Although significant, these stats aren’t reaching the hearts, minds, and hands of all the people who can restore them. Want to know what does? Recreation.
Why this secret works
This is what we know so far. The more people recreate and connect to their waters (like heading to the beach, fishing, boating, surfing, SUPing, etc.), the more reason people have to protect them. The more people are out there on their waters, the more they learn about them. And the more people learn, the more likely we all are to speak up when our waters are threatened or harmed in some way.
After all, this is how our laws work to protect what we love. When people speak up about something that threatens their waters and way of life, people give meaning and force to our laws like the Fisheries Act, CEAA, and the Navigation Protection Act (previously the Navigable Waters Protection Act). But, if no one is out there on the water, who is to say that these laws will protect them from harm?
This is why recreation is the gateway to water protection - it’s the secret ingredient, as we say. Getting out and playing on the Great Lakes is the key to restoring swimmable, drinkable, fishable water today. At its core, recreation is how we learn about our backyards and what lives there. It is how we reconnect with people through experiences. It also presents us with an opportunity to reflect. By simply heading to the water and experiencing our watershed (in, on, or around it), we gradually become water literate. Recreation helps us to restore swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. Yes, it really is that simple.
How do we know this? Well, when we started protecting water in 2001, we knew there weren’t enough people working to protect water in local communities. We also knew that most people were (and still are) not water literate. So, when people started asking us where they could go swimming in Lake Ontario in 2007, we stopped talking and started listening.
We listened by giving them a free data-driven app called Swim Guide. This easy-to-use app continues to have a profound impact on water protection. Over 1 million people in our network are now protecting their waters by simply heading to their local beach and engaging in recreational water use. We firmly believe that recreation is the secret ingredient to restoring and protecting swimmable, drinkable, fishable water.
Validating the secret through listening
To validate this secret, we continued to listen to the people who care about their waters. To do this, we started the Watermark Project in 2016. We started listening to more people and documented how they experienced their watersheds. We found that the majority of people who shared their Watermarks with us connected to water through recreation. Browse the archive and see for yourself.
Watermarks at IJC Public Meetings reveal secret
For further validation, we recently listened to people attending the IJC Public Meetings. We drove to Buffalo, NY to listen to people who cared about the water in their communities. We then drove to St. Catharines, ON and found more people willing to share their stories.
Every single Watermark we heard and collected at these meetings referred to recreation in some way. Together with the International Joint Commission (IJC), we collected 26 in total. Check them out here: Buffalo, St. Catharines, Sault Ste. Marie, and Sarnia.
Watermarks collected at the IJC Public Meetings highlighted the importance of recreation to people within their connection to water. Their stories included a wide range of recreational activities including:
- Fishing with family (Sam Hathaway’s Watermark & David Monolopolis’ Watermark).
Boating with friends and playing with family members on the beaches of Lake Erie (Tony Bochenski’s Watermark).
Swimming for the first time in the Great Lakes and falling in love with Lake Huron (Elizabeth Oldfield’s Watermark).
Walking along the shores of Lake Erie (Judith Russo’s Watermark).
We also heard of people growing up swimming in polluted waters and not knowing that their waters were meant to be clean. Take Charlie Henderson’s Watermark for example:
Transcript from video:
Hello, my name is Charlie Henderson and I am from Newfane, New York and my waterbody is Lake Ontario.
I grew up swimming in the lake and I didn’t realise that water wasn't supposed to be that polluted and have that much garbage on the shore until I had gone to the beaches in Lake Michigan and the Bruce Peninsula, and it was kind of an eye-opener.
When I came home I was disgusted by the sheer volume of garbage and plastics that were washed up on the shoreline. I want to help protect the beauty and natural habitat of the area.
All of the Watermarks we heard at the IJC Meetings touched upon the importance of recreation in our Great Lakes. Many of them also mentioned the will to help protect them, but may not know how. We believe this is key information to share, particularly with the IJC as they receive comments for their most recent draft of the Great Lakes Water Quality Draft Report.
Making it easy for people to participate
Of the hundreds of people who attended the IJC Public Meetings last month, there may be only a few who submitted comments on the report by the April 18th, 2017 deadline. By sharing people’s Watermarks in our comments, we made it easier for their voices to be heard.
To us, it is clear from listening to people that recreation helps connect people to water. This connection helps them to actively protect their Watermark. In fact, over the last year, we’ve listened to over 3000 Watermarks in our archive and found a common thread. Of all of the Watermarks we’ve collected so far, the majority of people care about their water because they play in it, relax near it, explore it, or reflect by it. They are a place of childhood and family time. They are filled with inspirational and life-altering moments. They are powerful places to be.
And we’re not the only ones who know that recreation is the secret ingredient to restoring our lakes. In fact, the majority of people living near the Great Lakes share it with us. According to a recent poll by the IJC, 86% of people living on the Great Lakes believe that our lakes should be protected for recreational activities.
And with a near $15-billion contribution to our economy per year, hitting the water during your free time is a good thing for you and your local community.
So, while most articles talk about what water quality does for recreation, let’s instead ask the question:
What can recreation do for water?
Recreation is the secret to restoring swimmable, drinkable, fishable water in our Great Lakes.
By getting out there and connecting with your water, you give meaning and force to the environmental laws that were put in place to protect you and the water you love. People are healthier and happier when they are close to swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. It’s a good place to live. In fact, half of Canadian adults choose where they are going to live because of proximity to healthy natural environments. So, let’s start by getting out there and experiencing our watersheds. Once we do this, we can begin assessing and improving leisure-time activities to help restore water quality for fish and wildlife habitat as well as for our own recreational purposes.
What you can do right now
There’s no time to waste. Submit your Watermark and get out there to protect what you love.