Freshwater continues groundwater governance work in Great Lakes region

Groundwater governance project enters next phase with focus on tribal engagement, intergovernmental collaboration

Freshwater has begun a second phase of work to build capacity for groundwater governance in the Great Lakes region funded by the Joyce Foundation. The team will be following recommendations summarized in the report, Groundwater Governance, Well Cobbled?, which assessed the technical, legal and structural capacity of the six Great Lakes states and 35 federally recognized tribes in EPA Region 5. The goal of the first phase documented the existing policies and practices affecting groundwater that feeds our lakes, rivers, wetlands and drinking water – and serves as a baseline to frame future groundwater policy work.

“One of our findings was that groundwater knowledge and policy varied significantly across the region and that policies that address cross-boundary challenges to groundwater use are non-existent,” explained Carrie Jennings, Freshwater research and policy director. “So, we are designing this next phase of work to focus on areas where aquifers span political jurisdictions and bringing together the people that share that water to help identify the current challenges and brainstorm strategies to address them.”

“Through our previous research, we know there are partners in various levels of government who are interested and willing to bring groundwater sustainability and conservation principles into their policy and practice, but they may not have had the reason or ability to do so yet.”

The partners in this research and policy collaborative include organizations from the first phase of work (Freshwater, University of Minnesota, Water365, Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission), along with a new partner, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

This project will help build a groundwater governance system that fosters inclusive prosperity and ecological health, and repairs past harm, while being resilient to climate and population stresses over the next generation.

Work plans include:

  • Hosting three “Aquifer Action Cluster” workshops that are centered on a particular shared aquifer to share issues and strategies and elevate tribal perspectives.
  • Providing aquifer-scale technical information and local ordinance review to identify best practices and strengthen tribal participation in environmental policy processes.
  • Developing insight through cross-regional comparison of best practices.
  • Modeling groundwater principles.
  • Developing specific policy language to facilitate improved intergovernmental collaboration.

Additionally, the team will participate in an existing groundwater governance planning process in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Freshwater hires tribal governance research associates
As part of this project, Freshwater recently welcomed two contract employees to work on tribal groundwater governance research and engagement, Alyssa Fabia and John Roterman. Alyssa completed her undergraduate degree in Anthropology at Hamline University and developed a keen interest in organizational structures, labor force movements, and the power of recognized authority. She completed a Master of Development Practice at the University of Minnesota.

John is a citizen of the Fund du Lac reservation and an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. He is entering the final year of a master’s degree in Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

“Alyssa and John will be meeting with our workshop hosts at Lac du Flambeau in Wisconsin and Pokagon Band of Potawatomi in Michigan, helping to form a local organizing committee, and following up on invitations to participants so that we can elevate the tribal perspective on groundwater,” said Eileen J. Kirby, Freshwater research and policy coordinator.

Continuing partnership with the Joyce Foundation
This latest grant of $500,000 from the Joyce Foundation is critical in helping advance groundwater governance in the Great Lakes region. Founded in 1948, the Foundation supports evidence-informed policy solutions for a wide range of social and environmental issues.

Joyce Foundation Environment Program Co-Director Elizabeth Cisar was recently recognized by Crain’s Chicago Business in their Notable Leaders in Sustainability.

“We love working under the guidance of Elizabeth Cisar,” said Jennings. “Groundwater policy is a new funding area for the Joyce Foundation, and they anticipate a long-term commitment, so building a solid foundation of knowledge along with respectful relationships with states and tribes in the region is critical. Elizabeth is engaged and focused on providing the contacts and resources that our team needs to be successful.”

The initial Phase 1 study showed that groundwater governance in the Great Lakes Region is in different stages of development and in need of better alignment to thoughtfully and sustainably manage aquifers and groundwater-surface water connections. In addition, there is an important need to amplify tribal government perspectives and advance indigenous leadership in groundwater governance. While priorities vary among tribal governments, many have strong interests in ecological preservation and restoration that intersect with groundwater management issues.

This continued work is intended to provide governing agencies, elected officials and other decision makers with defined strategies on how to equitably and sustainably manage groundwater over the long term.