Episode 3: Peter Annin | The Century of Water

September 13, 2021

The scarcity of natural resources has arguably defined many chapters of human history. Oil is seen by many as the driver of twentieth century geopolitics, and water has emerged as the defining natural resource of our future – with cascading implications on the environment and global economy. In this episode, Peter Annin, veteran environmental journalist and author of The Great Lakes Water Wars, discusses the peril of water scarcity and potential solutions.

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Transcript

[00:00:00] Peter: Scarcity and availability of water has become much more acute. And so in a different way, that’s why I say we’re entering the century of water. It will be the defining natural resource of this century, certainly by the end of the century, in my opinion, as oil segue ways out. Not that they’re replacing each other, but that these two natural resources are going to be the defining features of the global society, economy, environment, et cetera.

[00:00:37] Amy: From the Great Lakes Protection Fund, you’re listening to Great Lakes Great Stories, a six-part daily series celebrating the journalistic leaders of the Great Lakes region. I’m Amy Elledge.

[00:00:48] Steve: I’m Steve Cole. The outstanding storytellers featured on this podcast discuss their insights, influences, and inspirations for telling compelling and impactful stories about the Great Lakes – stories that earned each of them a Great Lakes Protection Fund 2020 Leadership Award for Communications Excellence.

[00:01:06] Amy: And we’ll hear about the challenges they see on the horizon for the Great Lakes region. Today on the show, we have environmental journalist and author Peter Annin. His award-winning book, The Great Lakes Water Wars highlights the challenges of water governance in the binational Great Lakes system.

Peter currently serves as the director of the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. And he joins us today to talk a little more about how he tells stories about the Great Lakes. Hi, Peter. Thanks for joining us.

[00:01:36] Peter: Good to be with you. Thank you,

[00:01:37] Steve: Peter. First, let me congratulate you on the 2020 leadership award.

[00:01:41] Peter: It’s a privilege to be such a, among such a great group of talented storytellers so thank you. The acknowledgement and the recognition is much appreciated.

[00:01:50] Steve: So to get us started can you tell us a little bit more about your work at Northland College?

[00:01:54] Peter: We’re a water center that has a science side and a policy and communication side. And the idea is to unsilo those two disciplines and have the scientists embedded with the communication students. And so our science students leave the Burke Center when they graduate very comfortable being in front of a microphone and being interviewed and communicating.

And what we see in society and in the scientific professionin my view, there’s not enough media training and all great science eventually attracts media attention. So what we’re trying to do is break down those barriers in a way that speeds up the process to better policy, better decision-making. So we have undergrads that leave here with a lot of field experience and a lot of media experience as well.

[00:02:48] Steve: Let’s switch gears and talk about the Great Lakes for a minute. Can you talk a bit about what you’ve seen improve over the last 20 years and where are our new challenges?

[00:02:56] Peter: The biggest historical improvement has been this whole restoration era that we’re in now obviously fueled and funded by the historic Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and all the amazing work that has done the cleanup work at the AOCs, the areas of concern, some of the most polluted sites in the region.

And then also just literally the hands-on restoration, bringing back the environment That’s been ridden so hard by the humans in the Great Lakes region for so many years. You know, the environment can be a bit of a downer because we’re always writing about these bad things. The Clean Water Act has really worked.

We aren’t done yet. Clean Air Act has worked. Things are better. And then you layer things like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative on top of that, it’s really an uplifting and optimistic time in the Great Lakes region.

And the country doesn’t realize it yet, but we’re no longer the rust belt we’re the blue belt and the New York times putting Duluth, Minnesota on the front page a couple years ago, calling it the most climate resilient city in the United States.

I actually extrapolate that to the entire Great Lakes region. We have huge climate challenges moving forward to answer the other part of your question, but we are the most resilient region in my opinion.

[00:04:15] Amy: Peter I’d like to ask you a little bit about your origin story and how you got into journalism in the first place.

[00:04:22] Peter: From a really early age, I was not one of those people, like didn’t know what I wanted to do. In high school I knew I wanted to be a writer. What that meant I wasn’t clear. And I originally started out majoring in English and journalism. But it was pretty clear early on that journalism was the track for me. So yeah, I worked on a couple of student newspapers and then had a number of remarkable internship opportunities that really helped launch my career when I was an undergraduate.

I was one of five students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison that landed graveyard shift jobs on the Wisconsin State Journal, the city’s main newspaper. So we were working shifts that people who had lives and kids didn’t want to do. Yeah. So as a junior, I’d had front page stories in a real newspaper, not just a student newspaper.

And that just led to other internships at US News and World Report and Newsweek and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, et cetera, after that.

[00:05:18] Steve: You’re also writing yourself and still publishing of course, you’ve been doing it for several years now. What keeps it fresh? How are you inspired to come up with a new story, create a new angle and so on?

[00:05:27] Peter: Probably an unsatisfying answer, but it’s really generated by the news. You hear about things happening and just like immediately, that’s a great story. And so mainly now I’m writing books, but I also write op-eds every once in a while. But a lot of times there’ll be a great story—and then through all the mentoring work I’ve done with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, a nonprofit that organizes educational fellowships for environmental and science journalists around the country, I used to work there and now I’m on their board—I’ll just call up a reporter and say, Hey, no pressure from me, but this is a great story I heard about. Or I’ll flip something in an email or whatever. It’s tempting to like get away from the long ball and book writing and go and chase those other stories. But I still bleed newsprint and you just can’t take it out of my genetic material.

[00:06:15] Steve: Do you think that you and your colleagues are able to hold people accountable in the work that you do? Is that a goal for you as you’re writing and maybe as you think about passing a story into somebody else’s hands to carry forward.

[00:06:28] Peter: Well, accountability is a big part of the job, but it’s not like I sit down and say, all right, I want to hold someone accountable. I guess another way to put it is more sort of myth-busting right. If there’s some bologna floating around out there, it’s good to write a story that sort of sets the record straight.

And if that ends up bringing accountability, that’s certainly good, but it’s more storytelling that edifies a particular topic for, especially the general public and if accountability ends up being part of it, that’s great. And that’s an important part of journalism, but my focus tends to be broader

[00:07:04] Steve: In a video you shot with us last year you said, I think you proposed that we’re in the era of too long to read. I think we’d all agree with that. We’re not only overstimulated we’re over-communicated in some respects and it would be great for people to invest more time to read the important details. How do you make a story? So darned interesting that folks will spend the extra 2, 3, 4 minutes over their cup of coffee in the morning to really read the story?

[00:07:32] Peter: The pressure’s really on just because there’s so much noise and so much competition, but I think the two things are for me, number one is the reporting and just digging out those rich captivating details that also bring the voice. People want to read about people or an animal or whatever.

The narrative character doesn’t have to be human, but finding that narrative character or characters. through the reporting and then just really working hard on the writing that it makes it captivating. And know if you do the right reporting, you can pull out the characters or the story that tells itself, but there are other times, especially with science and environmental stuff where you really have to work on the storytelling to elevate it to a way that it can compete. And what we talked about a lot in the businesses, if there’s always the bunny hugging stories that everybody loves to read, but bunny hugging stories often  aren’t the stories that change the world. But if you can find a bunny that can help be the next character to tell the broader story, that’s a little bit more maybe what I’m trying to say, but a reporting is a big part of it.

And then yeah, just really working on that writing and making a captivating, but not like selling out the story to the point where you push the copy and it just doesn’t work anymore.

[00:08:49] Steve: Yeah, I think it was in the same video that you proposed this idea of moving from the century of oil to the century of water. Can you explain a little bit more what you mean by that? And then what are the implications for those of us that live here around the Great Lakes?

[00:09:02] Peter: Yeah. I truly believe that the defining natural resource of the last century was petroleum globally. And it really feels to me for quite a while that we’ve been segue waying out of that with renewables and more sustainable fuel sources.

But in the meantime, separately, scarcity and availability of water has become much more acute. And so in a different way, that’s why I say we’re entering the century of water. It will be the defining natural resource of this century, certainly by the end of the century, in my opinion as oil segue ways out. Not that they’re replacing each other, but that these two to natural resources are going to be the defining features of the global society, economy, environment, et cetera.

And so, yeah, if you want me to think about it, some people call it, you know, the Great Lakes, sort of the Saudi Arabia of water. We have 20% of all the fresh surface water on the planet here in the Great Lakes watershed, and you know, the largest lake by surface area in the world with Lake Superior.

And these really charismatic water bodies. The fear in the region is that there could be a run on Great Lakes water that would threaten the signature ecosystem in the heart of North America, which is, as you pointed out at the top is a binational system with our friends and neighbors in Canada, including the province of Quebec with the St Lawrence system as well.

But as you all know, and as I wrote about in the book, there are plenty of pockets of water scarcity in the midst of this incredibly water rich region. And if we’re going to be the best stewards of our signature part of the Great Lakes region, then we need to be more water literate than we are. A big part of my driver now is to just elevate water literacy. To that example of transitioning from the century of oilto the century of water is one way to draw people in.

[00:10:57] Steve: Yeah over the last, let’s say three or four months awareness of the water crisis that exists in the western states of the United States has really risen. It’s not that that happened overnight, but now it’s reached the popular consciousness, I think nationally and probably beyond. I’m wondering, given your work in Great Lakes Water Wars, how do you think about us reminding policymakers both here in the basin and beyond the commitments that were made in the Great Lakes Compact?

[00:11:25] Peter: Repetition is not bad. There is too much repetition, but just as a rule, repeating things and getting out there and sending that signal. I wrote an op-ed about this at the Washington Post and one of the pieces of feedback I got from some people outside the Great Lakes region, some of them didn’t know that. there was a Great Lakes Compact that banned diversions from the Great Lakes. The compacts adopted in 2008. A lot of time has passed since then. And then maybe more importantly too, a lot of the authors of the Great Lakes Compact have retired. And so that generation that created the paradigm of water management in the Great Lakes region have moved on and the people who were in the room are no longer the ones interpreting the document and out in the trenches. That’s going to be an interesting period of history that we’re entering into here, but the bottom line is that yeah. Reminding people that it’s out there and what it does and how important it is and what a model sustainability it is for any ecosystem, I think is the kind of thing that leaders and the Great Lakes region, whether it be political, civil society, or otherwise environmental organizations, et cetera. is something that we should continue to do in the region.

[00:12:36] Steve: I echo your point about the lack of awareness now of the existence of the Great Lakes Compact. We all have those conversations at, well, we used to have cocktail parties, but when we went to cocktail parties in the past, we’d have those conversations I think about the great asset that we live around. Let me ask you, and I think you’ve referred to this obliquely a little while ago. If you’re writing a new book? What’s coming up next for you?

[00:12:57] Peter: You know, obviously it’s a water book. It’s a more national water book that’s looking at water scarcity and solutions to water scarcity moving forward.

And some of the themes in the book are in the Washington Post op ed, but looking at scarcity and not just gloom and doom, but what are some of the solutions and just reinforcing the ideas of sustainability and that I think there are solutions. There are ways out of it. There are some tough decisions are going to have to be made to get out of the situation that we’re in with water, but there are ways to get there. And we just need to be on top of our game to do it both here in North America and abroad.

[00:13:33] Steve: Do you have a timetable for that book at this point? Do you have a deadline?

[laughter]

Peter: It’s a year behind because of COVID. I’ll just say that.

Steve: Fair enough.

[00:13:42] Amy: Peter. I’d like to switch gears a little and talk about your personal experiences with the lakes. Do you have a favorite place on the Great Lakes?

[00:13:50] Peter: I really do like the islands of the Great Lakes and a lot of people don’t realize it in the United States anyway, because it’s on the other side of the international boundary, but there are 30,000 gorgeous islands in Georgian Bay and Northern Lake Huron and it’s just a stunning place, but they tend to be more remote.

Fewer people. Really gorgeous. And then Lake Superior where I live being the most remote lake, the largest lake, but also the least inhabited on the shoreline or the island is my favorite place to hang out either side of the international boundary. We spend a lot of time on the Canadian side. At least we did before the border closed.

[00:14:28] Amy: Let me just ask you one final question and that is, do you have a favorite Great Lakes story, either something that you’ve covered or your own personal story that you like to tell.

[00:14:38] Peter: My wife and I imprinted our kids in the Great Lakes. We went wilderness camping on an island, and there was one night when we were down on the shore and the fire was winding down and we were looking at the stars, right.

It was just amazing lack of light pollution on some of these Great Lakes islands. And I went back to the tent to get something. And I actually do this a lot. I work on nighttime navigation in the woods, so I didn’t have a headlamp or a flashlight on and sort of slowly working my way on the trail and beyond the tent, I noticed foxfire, which is a biofluorescent rotting wood and went back, got everybody, no headlamps, no flashlights. As a family working our way back into the forest to this truly magical faint green glow on the forest floor. It was a super special moment for me and the family.

[00:15:36] Amy: Wow. That’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like that before. Peter, this was a really fascinating conversation and it was really great to talk to you today. So can you let people know where they can find you and your work and how they can connect with you?
[00:15:52] Peter: Yeah. So the two places are the Burke Center website. So the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation, you can see all the cool work our students are doing there and the rest of our team. And then also the book website is greatlakeswaterwars.com.

[00:16:06] Steve: Peter, thanks so much for the conversation today. We really enjoyed it.

[00:16:09] Peter: Great to be with you. Thank you for having me.

[00:16:13] Steve: Thanks for listening to Great Lakes Great Stories. Tune in next time for another great conversation about Great Lakes storytelling. Please keep the conversation going with us. Our Twitter and Facebook handles are @GLPFund and we’re using the hashtag #GreatLakesGreatStories.

[00:16:28] Amy: If you enjoyed the episode, please spread the word and hit that subscribe button and be sure not to miss another conversation with an exceptional storyteller and Great Lakes Protection Fund 2020 Leadership Award recipient. Visit our website glpf.org to receive updates on the 2021 leadership awards. Click the Get Updates link to stay connected with us. See you next time.

Great Lakes. Great Stories.

Great Lakes Great Stories celebrates the Great Lakes Protection Fund’s 2020 Leadership Award recipients. Visit our Leadership Awards page to learn more about the recipients.

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Great Lakes Great Stories is produced by the Great Lakes Protection Fund and SoundEazy with help from The Good Lemon. Theme music is by Roeland Ruijsch.

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