J. Carl Ganter’s first assignment as a budding young journalist for Traverse City’s WCCW radio was to cover the famous French sea explorer, Jacques Cousteau, and his crew’s visit to the Great Lakes. He was 15, in tenth grade at Traverse City Central, and had his first taste of international news. Since then, he’s gone on to be a widely published photojournalist and journalist, with his work appearing in Time Magazine, National Geographic, and even Rolling Stone.
But after moving away from Traverse City “half a dozen times” and covering tough stories across Asia, he came back to his blue roots, along the shores of Lake Michigan. He and his wife, Eileen, who is also a journalist, realized the biggest story of the era was at their feet. It was water. “The story of water and civilization is the biggest drama playing out around the world, from Grand Traverse Bay to China and the Middle East,” Ganter told the Traverse City Business News. “There are dramatic risks to life, property and economies — and there are incredible opportunities for investment and innovation.”
Activating the network he built while working with some of the world’s largest news outlets, in 2000 Ganter created Circle of Blue, the Traverse City-based international agency that “provides trusted information from the front lines” and is recognized globally for its trusted reporting about the competition between water, food, and energy. Ganter, who recently received the Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Innovation Award, speaks regularly on water issues at major international convening and serves on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Water Security.
The TCBN sat down with Ganter for a timely talk about fresh water – a few days after his return home from an aerial and on-the-ground survey of California’s Central Valley, the apex of an epic drought that is gripping the state and rippling across the American West.
TCBN: What is the nature of the conversation about the world’s water crisis right now?
Ganter: There is a shift in how we’re talking about the value of water. Not the price of it or who owns it, but what we use water for and where. What is the economic value of water?
It highlights some of the biggest questions — and divides — about what many of us take for granted. In California, I actually heard someone say, “The fish don’t need water, I do.” When you hear something as fractious as that, you stop and say, “Yes, this is a real emergency.” What is the environment worth? What is water worth clean? What is it worth dirty? What happens if there is none?
But the discussions — from the left and right — are moving more toward water’s true economic value. When water has a definable value, it’s a lot easier for governments and businesses to invest time and money. We’re seeing the Nature Conservancy working with companies like Coca-Cola to define the value of ecosystems and the critical role they play in the water supply. (Hint, without a healthy environment, the entire water cycle fails.) We’re seeing more and more businesses realizing that their entire existence is at risk if they don’t join the conversation and bring productive, inclusive, transparent solutions.
TCBN: Talk specifically about California, now in the fourth year of a drought.
Ganter: California has a broken water allocation system. The laws are 100 years old. Farmers are still doing flood irrigation in the desert while some cities’ wells are going dry. The dichotomy is stunning. But good things are happening. Conservation measures are kicking in, groundwater regulations are in process, and it’s likely that water will be much better measured, shared and valued. Time will tell, though; by the end of the summer, the drought will be even more intense.
TCBN: You grew up in Traverse City. How did our fresh water influence later experiences?
Ganter: I was born here and grew up in Leelanau County on Cedar Lake. My elementary school, Norris, it turned out was next to a toxic Superfund site (the former Grand Traverse Overall Supply). The drinking water smelled bad and we learned later it was horribly polluted. It showed the vulnerability of our water, even underground.
When I was in college, I photographed assignments for Rolling Stone about the 10 worst places on the planet. The mills of Gary, Indiana, south of Chicago on our Lake Michigan was one of the places. A few years later, while on assignment for TIME, I reported illegal dumping of toxic chemicals into the Mississippi River. While on assignment covering the AIDS crisis across Asia, people were suffering because they didn’t have safe drinking water. Yet I could go home, swim in the Bay and even drink the water without fear.
To see this direct pollution of our drinking water — at home and around the world — was logically inconceivable.
TCBN: Michigan is second only to California in variety of agricultural products … and we have water. How do we handle that?
Ganter: As a thirsty world looks longingly to Michigan and the Great Lakes, we need to be prepared on two fronts. First, how do we manage and protect this rare resource in the face of many challenges, from pollution and invasive species to enacting robust policy? Second, how do we seize the opportunity to build Michigan into a global leader in technology, policy, sustainable agriculture, and watershed stewardship? We need to be prepared since it’s likely that we’ll see companies investing in the Great Lakes to literally move their water footprint and risk.The world is seeking leadership — Michigan can be in the driver’s seat of a fast-emerging blue economy.
TCBN: How do Michigan and the Great Lakes factor into the world’s water crisis?
Ganter: The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2015 named “water crises” as the world’s number one risk of greatest impact. That’s even above economic insecurity and terrorism.
While the much of the world is struggling and in the face of climate change, remember that the Great Lakes hold 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. We must be prepared and optimistic about how we value our water and how we protect it. We have to embrace the rarity and beauty of what we have here, to step out of the weeds and have a unified voice.
Water access — from the poorest neighborhoods to the most lush environments — is an issue that affects every person and business, it directly affects political stability and geopolitical risk. For example, China doesn’t have enough water to continue mining and processing coal, and coal is what drives China’s economy. This is why we’re not only seeing China invest in Australia and South America to off-shore its coal-water footprint, but we’re seeing dramatic growth in conservation and new, low-water energy technologies like wind and solar. It’s to save energy… and water.
J. Carl Ganter is the featured speaker at Northwestern Michigan College’s International Affairs Forum on September 18. More details at