Executive Director’s Letter

More than a billion people lack access to clean, fresh water.

From the perspective of water-abundant Northeast Ohio, that fact may seem almost incomprehensible. We are used to treating water as a seemingly inexhaustible, virtually free resource. Turn on the tap and there it is. But in many areas of the world that’s a dream, and even in arid parts of the United States, water supplies are strained. People there eye our water covetously. A pipeline from the Great Lakes to Arizona may not be likely, but as with most issues, it’s important that we keep the larger context in mind. It’s increasingly vital to take a global perspective and not just a local one. Indeed, the water crisis that afflicts large parts of the earth is expected to worsen as humankind dithers instead of taking action to address climate change.

Climate action is imperative for many reasons, and we who enjoy ample fresh water must not be complacent. Some scientists predict that Great Lakes water levels will drop substantially if climate change continues unabated. There are many things that we as citizens can do about climate change. We can, for starters, demand that many of our policymakers stop ignoring the overwhelming science simply because they don’t like what it says. But we also must pay special attention to our water resources and not take them for granted. Our region’s water supply is under stress from many causes, including renewed green algae blooms on Lake Erie and the massive water demands of the hydraulic fracturing boom. Immediate economic gain must be balanced by our need for long-term preservation of vital assets.

And in striking that balance there will be additional opportunities that could provide Northeast Ohio with both competitive advantage and an important chance to help address the global water crisis. This region has learned a great deal about remediation of polluted water since the famous Cuyahoga River fire in 1969 catalyzed a push for environmental renewal. Enhancing and sharing that expertise can help the world deal with similar challenges.

Many organizations that already are deeply engaged in water issues have joined forces under the banner of The Alliance for Water Future to share knowledge and spur innovative solutions to water issues. NorTech, the technology-based economic development organization, has mapped a cluster of existing and emerging companies that have the potential to grow the region’s water expertise. That capability can both create jobs locally and help solve water problems globally.

Why do we have this regional strength? Because the research and manufacturing capacity in our region, which at an earlier time primarily contributed to the pollution of our waterways, is turning more and more to solving water problems. And that brings me to the photographic essay that is featured in this year’s annual report.

Jeff Whetstone’s evocative images of the Cuyahoga River illustrate not only its winding route through diverse landscapes but also the history of the Cuyahoga’s development and our regard for this waterway. There was a time when we treated the river in a wholly utilitarian way. We used it to move cargo and as a kind of sewer to receive industrial and household waste. For that we have paid enormous environmental, reputational and economic costs. The 1969 fire began the slow transition to a new outlook. The Alliance for Water Future seeks to accelerate the transformation by nurturing collaborative action among universities, public agencies, companies and nonprofits. As Whetstone’s photographs show, the Cuyahoga will remain a working river for stretches of its meandering way to Lake Erie.

Yes, we must vigilantly work to restore the quality of the river’s water and Lake Erie’s, too. That effort would be greatly aided by overcoming the long-standing barriers that keep people from getting close to and seeing the water the way Whetstone has. Those barriers are beginning to fall away in and around downtown Cleveland where public access to the water has the greatest potential to stimulate economic activity by attracting people. Creative planning and authentic design should highlight, even celebrate, our industrial heritage and the muscular qualities of waterways that have an ongoing role to play in our economic life. And, perhaps of greatest importance, if we apply ourselves sufficiently to the task we can achieve a level of global leadership in addressing water issues that will surely grow ever more pressing.

David T. Abbott Signature

David T. Abbott
Executive Director