A huge algae bloom on Lake Erie in 2014 shut down the water supply for over 400,000 people around the American city of Toledo, but it opened an opportunity for a Canadian Rotary club to empower its community to reduce Great Lakes pollution.  

Those lakes contain over 20% of the world’s surface freshwater. They are vital to every economic activity from industry to tourism in a region where 30% of the U.S. and Canadian workforce lives.  The frequency of severe storms has more than doubled over the past 60 years, flushing soil, fertilizer, oil, and other chemicals into the watershed. The ecological and economic losses are dire.

By 2015, Rotarians John Lawrence and Blake Vince had convinced the Chatham Sunrise Rotary Club to take on a new role: catalyzing action to protect Ontario’s Lower Thames River, whose waters flow into Lake St. Clair and eventually to Lake Erie.  John, one of the first board members of ESRAG, contributed his experience in water and soil conservation from a lifetime in agricultural education.  Blake, a fifth-generation family farmer, is an expert in regenerative agriculture who won a prestigious Nuffield Scholarship to study sustainable farming practices around the world.

The Club started by inviting a series of speakers to brief them on the interdependence of the people and ecology of the Great Lakes, then to focus on what they could do locally to protect the essential, vulnerable resource of clean water. “Our call to action,” says John, “is a quote from historian Howard Zinn: ‘Small acts multiplied by millions of people can transform the world.’  You don’t have to build a new dam or dredge a river to have an impact.”  

From this research, the club built their Clean Water for Living initiative. They worked hard to raise enough money to build an engaging website which presents the big picture of Great Lakes water issues, provides an array of resources, and brings the message close to home through short, disarming video interviews with local people who are taking effective action. 

The work took another quantum leap when the Club organize the regional Clean Water for Living Summit in November 2019, drawing participants from both Canada and the U.S.  The inspiring talks, given by regional experts in a variety of fields, were filmed and are now posted on the website for anyone in the world to see.

Through this project, Chatham Sunrise’s trademark work has progressed from decorating the river to defending it.  The Club was already beloved in their city, Chatham Kent, for creating a Rotary trail along the river, planting an allée of chanticleer pear trees and 40,000 daffodils.  In their new mission as water conservationists, the Club mobilized volunteers of all ages to help install a rain garden to naturally filter toxic runoff from a downtown parking lot laid over a brownfield site. That’s more than a park:  it’s a teaching tool. 

True to its new role, the Club now raises awareness by selling rain barrels and reusable water bottles with the Rotary logo. They also offer a public workshop called Greening your Grounds, teaming up with local nurseries who sell native plants. The goal is to encourage people to adopt environmentally friendly landscaping.

Chatham Sunrise is raising international interest through the professionally-produced “Water Champions” videos on the Clean Water for Living website. Each shows how ordinary Chatham residents are applying good water stewardship in a specific setting: agriculture, industry, a home, and urban infrastructure. Don’t miss the interview with the zesty Ursuline nuns who commissioned an architect (a member of Chatham Sunrise Rotary) to design them a state-of-the-art green building! 

The hometown heroes are the heart of the project’s persuasive impact.  “These are trusted neighbors,” says John. “The memorable message is: look what people like us are doing!”

The Water Champion videos have provided a powerful return on investment by intriguing and motivating audiences across Canada.  Chatham Sunrise was invited to show them at the Toronto Water Docs festival, which won John invitations to speak at a number of prominent Rotary clubs. The film about the rain garden won a prize at the festival the next year. 

“The following year,” John adds, “we got a request from Brazil to give them a translation into Portuguese and to allow them to show it with subtitles at their International Water Film Festival.  We did provide the translation and it was shown.”  The German filmmaker Daniel Munter read about Blake’s regenerative farming in The Rotarian magazine, and is including Blake in a documentary he is making about the Great Lakes.

Film festival successes, invitations to speak at other clubs, and several newspaper stories have brought happiness and pride to the members of Chatham Sunrise, reinforcing them in their new mission. 

Asked for advice on how other clubs can develop an environmental focus and identity, John, who’s served twice as President of Chatham Sunrise, offers a few pointers: “Make sure to bring your club with you. Educate them and get them excited. There’s a certain amount of inertia to be overcome, but the Rotary relationships help.  If you’ve got two or three Rotarians who are really interested and persevere, other Rotarians will go along.”

“We decided that if we wanted to get attention” for strategies to protect the Lakes, “we had to do a top quality production, including hiring a professional videographer” he adds. “We went through a fairly rigorous process to get the club to agree to spend that much money.” 

Also, “It’s hard to keep fellowship going if you don’t do hands-on stuff,” he says with a smile. “The Club is really in favor of this project, but they REALLY loved planting those 40,000 daffodils.  Every spring, everybody in town says, ‘Oh, there are the Rotary daffodils!”

by Ariel Miller, ESRAG Reporter