Wednesday, March 7, 2018

IJC Great Lakes Regional Office bids farewell to Director Trish Morris: An interview with Michael Mezzacapo

2018 International Joint Commission Great Lakes Regional Office (GLRO) staff. (Left to right, front: Monique Myre, Lana Pollack, former GLRO Director Trish Morris, Mark Burrows. Left to right, rear: Michael Mezzacapo, Ken Getty, Diane Varosky, Sheila Dugmore, Antonette Arvai, Lizhu Wang, Jennifer Boehme, Dan Berube, Matthew Child, Raj Bejankiwar)
The International Joint Commission (IJC) was created by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty signed by the US and Canada. The IJC is designed to prevent and solve disputes over transboundary water issues between the US and Canada. In 1978, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) was signed by the US and Canada to restore the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes. The Agreement formed the Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, the only bi-national office of the IJC.

The Director of the GLRO serves a four-year term under a rotating Canada/US leadership agreement. The position is responsible for the overall management of scientific and technical programs which support the GLWQA, in addition to budgeting financial resources of the office.

Trish Morris joined the IJC GLRO in 2014 after a successful career with the Army Corps of Engineers and Army Headquarters, effectively assisting the organization to navigate complex legal and policy matters relating to invasive species, the U.S. Clean Water Act, and remediation and revitalization of the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Her tenure at the IJC was highlighted by the GLRO integration of the Canadian and US budget streams and issuance of the first-ever Triennial Assessment of Progress Report. This year, she is departing the IJC to join the Navy’s efforts to manage the needs of Marine and Navy shore installations in the southwestern US.

Before leaving the IJC, Trish sat down with me to reflect on her tenure as Director of the GLRO.

1. What made you interested in working for the IJC?

A: Most of my legal career, before assuming the role as IJC GRLO Director, was involved in some aspect of water management and policy. Previous positions included working for the Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Headquarters overseeing Army Corps work. The Army Corps is directly involved with water management across the US. My previous jobs either managed or advised on subjects like the Everglades, Deepwater Horizon spill, Mississippi River, and the Upper Missouri main stem. At the Army HQ, I had the challenge and reward of advising the Corps on watersheds across the entire US.

Because of my previous experience, the Director position at the IJC GRLO seemed like a natural fit. The main attraction was the focus on policy and the ability to utilize my Master’s degree in public policy and peace operations. I embraced the opportunity to gain experience with international/binational issues and manage conflict between the two countries.

2. During your tenure, what have been some of the most significant challenges to Great Lakes management and restoration?

A: There are many challenges to running a binational office. However, one problem that stands out, that is not often realized, is the budgeting process. One of the more unique challenges and — ultimately — successes was aligning two budget streams from two countries, in two different fiscal years.

The GLRO, by treaty, is funded from fiscal sources of the US and Canada by equal moieties (meaning each country must contribute equal amounts). Previously the office used Canadian funds to cover expenses, and the US would reimburse Canada quarterly. However, this posed many problems. One major issue was the inability to take advantage of different funding streams available in each country.

I was able to successfully combine the GLRO budgets and merge funding from both countries. This success allows the IJC to fund more studies per year and more efficiently plan future projects. Aligning the budgets had a substantive impact, and the IJC is now more effective and ultimately better positioned to fulfill the mission of the GLWQA.

3. What project or projects are you most proud of during your term at the IJC?

A: One project I am most proud of was establishing the Sea Grant Fellowship program at the GRLO. Dr. Jennifer Boehme approached me with interest in providing educational and professional opportunities to recent graduates in the Great Lakes basin. After extensive efforts between the two of us, it finally came to fruition three years ago. Bringing a fellowship to the GRLO has been a fantastic opportunity for fellows and staff. It builds a connection to the community. It has been a positive and successful experience, and I’m proud that the IJC GRLO can offer such opportunities.

4. What is the next chapter in your career, and what advice can you offer to those wishing to protect the Great Lakes and their treasured resources?

A: The next chapter in my career is to be region counsel for the Navy, southwest region. The region includes California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. Besides the obvious issues of supporting the installation war fighters, civilians, and families in a unique training environment, water is or will be an issue for every one of those installations, each for differing reasons. In my new role, I will work on a broad array of water and environmental issues while supervising an office of attorneys.

The Great Lakes are such a treasured freshwater resource. The people in this basin are so fortunate. Water is going to be a conflict driver for many years. Without water or too much of it, citizens will face issues — whether you’re in Cape Town, South Africa, which is getting ready to turn off the taps of an entire city, or you're in Houston, which spent weeks under water. Water mismanagement and climate effects will be felt across the world.

I’ve learned so much from the professionals in the Great Lakes region regarding water management. But, the basin itself isn’t immune to complex issues. Last year Lake Ontario had massive flooding, which coincidentally coincided with a new water management plan called Plan 2014. The historic rainfall that caused destruction to communities in the US and Canada could not have been mitigated by any management plan, with the amounts of water experienced. Climate change will continue to stress our systems; we need to train young scientists and environmental professionals to figure out a way to be more resilient and improve our efforts to mitigate the effects of a changing climate.

I encourage those interested in protecting the Great Lakes to study the emerging issues and focus on prevention and protection. It’s important to preserve this treasure for many generations. It’s such a unique and beautiful area that needs to be protected.

Michael Mezzacapo is the 2017-2018 Michigan Sea Grant Fellow at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

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