Guest Blogger: Sara Gosman

Sara Rollet Gosman joined the University of Michigan's Environmental Law and Policy Program as a lecturer in 2007. Her research and teaching interests include toxic substance regulation and toxic torts, environmental justice, oil and gas development, watershed planning, and Supreme Court litigation.

In addition to being a lecturer at Michigan Law, Gosman was a water resources attorney for the National Wildlife Federation until 2012. There she worked on implementation of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact and other Great Lakes water issues. Prior to joining NWF, Gosman was an assistant attorney general in the environment, natural resources, and agriculture division of the Michigan Department of Attorney General. She was a member of the state of Michigan's Environmental Justice Working Group from 2008 to 2010.

Gosman earned an AB with high honors in 1996 from Princeton University and a JD, cum laude, in 2001 from Harvard Law School, where she was senior editor of the Harvard Environmental Law Review. Through a dual-degree program she also earned a master's degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University.

The Great Lakes To Come

Living in Michigan, it is hard not to think about the Great Lakes. When I first moved to the state in 2003, I have to admit I didn't know much about them. People would tell me they were going to the “lakeshore” or “up north” for vacations, but until I visited myself, I had no idea just how stunning these places were. And then, I found myself working for many years on the Great Lakes-first as an attorney for the state of Michigan, and then as an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.

Now that I am teaching and researching full time at the University of Michigan, I still end up thinking about the Great Lakes. I wonder-what will the Great Lakes be like in the future?  How much water will there be in the Lakes? What will the quality of the water be, and will there be more invasive species? How will our energy choices affect the Lakes—when we drive (or take a train?) along the Lakes, will we see more power plants or more wind farms, or both? Will the economy support the health of the Lakes, or drive disinvestment in environmental protection? Will the region's population rise or fall, and how might this either benefit or harm the Lakes? Will our many governance structures rise to the occasion or prove inadequate to the task, and how will the geopolitics of water scarcity play out?

These are not new questions to the many, many people who care about the Great Lakes. But the opportunity to think deeply about all of them at once is rare.  So I jumped at the chance to be a faculty mentor in a project designed to do exactly that—the Great Lakes Futures Project. This project brings together 21 universities and research organizations in both the United States and Canada, including the University of Michigan, to consider the possible futures of the Great Lakes. The organizing principle is scenario analysis, a methodological approach that identifies key drivers and explores the ways in which these drivers could interact to create different scenarios. The goal is to tell stories about what could be-and then to learn from these stories how to go about reaching our desired future.

The project identified eight important drivers for the Great Lakes: climate change, energy, economy, water quantity, biological and chemical contaminants, invasive species, demographics and societal values, and governance and geopolitics. For each driver, a team of students and faculty mentors spent several months thinking about what futures might be possible in fifty years, through the lens of the last fifty years and what is happening now.

I am part of the governance and geopolitics team. (The other faculty are Gail Krantzberg (McMaster University) and Kathryn Friedman (SUNY-Buffalo), and the students are Adam Thorn (Ryerson University) and Savitri Jetoo (McMaster University)). As the students discovered, there is no shortage of writing on Great Lakes governance. But as we delved into the issues, I was surprised at how much the formal structure of scenario analysis encouraged us all to think creatively about the resiliency (or not) of the framework in the face of many threats to the Lakes.

One threat we often worry about in Michigan is diversions from the Great Lakes to dry areas of the country. There is plenty of debate about the likelihood of these diversions-some argue that transporting large amounts of water will always be impractical, while others argue that water scarcity will eventually make diversions a reality.

Scenario analysis looks beyond this debate to imagine several futures. In one, our current governance system counters any threat through well resourced institutions that work closely together and engage the public. In another, the governance system fails as institutions become fragmented, fight among themselves for resources, and disengage from the public. The question is: what decisions should we make now to ensure that the first future is our future?

In January, the project held a workshop at the University of Michigan to share the results of the first stage of analysis. The students got a chance to present the conclusions of their research, first to other teams, and then to stakeholders. They will submit their papers to the Journal of Great Lakes Research this spring. Moving forward, the project will focus on two critical (and no doubt obvious) axes: the environment and economy balance, and the capacity to make change (governance). Based on my experience so far, I think there is a very good chance that the final recommendations will impact decision-making across the Great Lakes.

Or, in the language of scenario analysis, that is at least one future.                  
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