Swim Drink Fish is highlighting members of our incredible ecosystem. This Breaking Water segment features Kiersten McCutcheon. Kiersten is a young water professional, project manager, and advocate for the Great Lakes.
Can you please introduce yourself and tell us where you work/what you do?
Hi! My name is Kiersten McCutcheon, and I am a young professional currently working as a project coordinator for Niagara Coastal, a non-profit organization. As the VAST Project Coordinator, I lead the organization’s Visual Assessment Survey Tool (VAST) initiative. The VAST initiative engages community members as citizen scientists to collect data and images that can provide evidence of the changing conditions on the Great Lakes. Citizen scientists capture data such as the amounts of nuisance algae wash-up and locations experiencing shoreline erosion.
This data is publicly available, used to advocate for policy changes, guide coastal management decisions, and identify the need for local actions that communities can take to improve their shorelines. In just over a year, I have developed VAST from an idea to a helpful tool housing more than 3,600 images of shorelines spanning three of the Great Lakes.
Niagara Coastal uses this data to identify stretches of the coast needing restoration. This year, I also became responsible for coordinating the implementation of nature-based coastal restoration projects for the organization.
What is the most powerful memory you have of being on or near the water?
Earlier this year, I was fortunate to be selected as one of 30 youths from across Canada working in the water industry to participate in Waterlution’s Water Innovation Lab in Atlantic Canada. I spent one week on Prince Edward Island at the Canadian Center for Climate Change and Adaptation, collaborating with the other participants to develop innovative solutions to issues such as coastal erosion, flooding, and impacts on species. While this was an incredible time on the island, learning from experts and the other participants, the experience didn’t truly become powerful for me until I saw the devastating impacts of Hurricane Fiona at the places I had visited a few weeks prior. My experience cannot compare to those whose homes were damaged and livelihoods lost due to the hurricane. However, I am confident now that I am working in the right industry to help mitigate and adapt to the impacts of changing climate conditions, and that is a powerful memory to keep with me.
How did you get involved in the movement for swimmable, drinkable, fishable water and what what you say to encourage others to join the movement?
I was first introduced to the movement for swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water during my time attending Niagara College to complete the Ecosystem Restoration post-graduate program. During the program, I completed a year-long assignment with a local non-profit organization, the Niagara Coastal Community Collaborative. Through the collaborative, I became aware of how vital it is to engage community members in any efforts to protect or restore the Great Lakes.
Whether for drinking, swimming, fishing, or my favourite water activity, kayaking, we all rely on the Great Lakes in some way. As a shared community resource, it will take a community of people passionate about protecting the Great Lakes to ensure they can continue to be used to meet our needs.
Why do you believe grassroots organizations such as Niagara Coastal Community Collaborative are so important?
Niagara Coastal provides a local forum where landowners, students, representatives from industry and conservation authorities, and various levels of government have equal opportunities to express their concerns and take action. This organizational framework is based on the Collective Impact Model developed by the Tamarack Institute. Small local actions taken by each person or group may seem ineffective initially, but with everyone working collaboratively towards a shared goal, a more significant impact is achieved.
Knowledge sharing is another crucial component of a more grassroots organization like Niagara Coastal. Sharing information with the public about the issues affecting their shoreline, planning workshops and encouraging community input and involvement is vital. On Lake Erie in the Niagara Region, much of the coastline is privately owned, and landowners need to be provided with the information they need to make informed decisions. Landowners and community members also have a wealth of knowledge to share. They are the ones on the coast seeing the impacts of our changing climate, and coastal managers need to use this local knowledge when developing management plans.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to share about your work, your connection to water, or how we can encourage people to join the movement for a swimmable, drinkable, fishable future?
Education is not merely information; it provides the tools for individuals to make informed decisions that are best for them and align with their values. I think David Attenborough captures this idea best when he said,
“No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
Engaging the community through community-based monitoring initiatives and providing a forum for individuals to share knowledge on the issues they have experienced are necessary first steps for all organizations striving to preserve our swimmable, drinkable, fishable future. Whether to take the next step and become part of the solution through local action is up to you.
Learn more about Niagara Coastal Community Collaborative:
As featured by Swim Drink Fish
As a volunteer-led group, the Swim Drink Fish vision of creating swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for everyone started with people. It’s this vision that has connected people to the water’s edge and given communities access to their local waters. Our vision has come to fruition, and continues to grow, thanks to the power of community-based action.
We use the tools of a diverse group of passionate water lovers with the same goal in mind: swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for everyone. Our vision has never wavered, and that’s why the past is powering our present and the future, as we continue to look forward with people powering us there.