Michigan’s history teaches cautionary lessons about humanity’s hunger for consumption of natural resources.
Our state’s white pine forest, stretching over two-thirds of the state, was expected in the 1860s to withstand logging for 500 years—but the timber industry cut nearly the whole thing down in 50 years.
Michigan’s vast wetlands, at first considered nuisances that needed to be eradicated, declined by 4 million acres over a century—and now we know how valuable wetlands are for flood control, fish and wildlife habitat, and pollution filtering.
The waters of the Great Lakes were once considered so abundant that they could assimilate any volume of pollution society could discharge into them—and then thousands of people started dying in the early 1900s from typhoid and cholera resulting from the dumping of human wastes upstream from drinking water intakes.
We live in the Great Lakes State, surrounded by four of the largest lakes in the world. As we gaze out at the blue horizon, it’s tempting to think that there’s no way humans could significantly diminish them. On World Water Day, it’s important to recognize that seeming inexhaustibility is a myth.
Although the Great Lakes have declined only slightly from record water levels, this doesn’t mean we can expect surplus water in the long run. Climate change may ultimately prove the biggest Great Lakes water diversion of all—by driving population away from the arid Southwest and elsewhere, placing unprecedented demand on this region’s waters. Should this happen, as recent signs have suggested, we will need to conserve water more than ever before even though encircled by these Great Lakes.
Tribal leader Frank Ettawageshik put our Great Lakes in the proper perspective: “One hundred and fifty years ago, we had a resource in the Great Lakes region that was considered inexhaustible. It lasted barely two generations. This was the White Pine forest. The White Pine of this century is water.”
“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”—Thomas Fuller
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“We have a saying—any decision we make today should take into consideration the next seven generations.”—Tribal chairwoman and attorney of Bay Mills Indian Community, Whitney Gravelle
On United Nations’ World Water Day, it’s worth asking this question: Why is it that we only begin to understand what we have at the very moment it is gone? This question defines the crisis around water in the Great Lakes. The stories and statistics around water poisoning, pollution, and scarcity are staggering.
Recent water disasters have been all too common: the Flint lead-in-drinking water tragedy, the thousands of residential water shutoffs in Detroit and beyond, the 2014 toxic algal bloom that shut down the Toledo drinking water system, and the countless other community water supplies poisoned from chemical contamination from PFAS and other pollutants.
Time and time again, the reaction from residents is: How could this have happened in America?
A look at the last 50 years reveals how our lack of investment in water infrastructure paved the way for Michigan’s and America’s water crisis. After passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the federal government fulfilled much of its promise by funding sewage treatment construction with grants comprising 75% of the cost. But in the 1980s, Congress significantly cut back on sewage treatment grants, replacing them with revolving loan funds that are much less helpful to communities.
It’s time to reverse this disinvestment to assure clean, safe, and affordable drinking water, and to protect individuals and families and make more of our lakes and streams fishable and swimmable. Here’s how:
Prevent and Protect Water—First, we must prioritize the protection of our freshwater surface and groundwater supplies. Prevention is the most effective way to protect this precious and finite resource. It’s common sense to avoid a problem before it arises. Protective water quality standards and strict enforcement against violators are absolutely essential.
Plan with Nature-Based Solutions in Mind—Second, we should engage in coordinated smart land use planning to anticipate demographic growth, cultivate green spaces, and avoid destruction of wetlands, flood plains, and aquifers. Planning is hard and requires coordinated community engagement, compromise, and vision.
Invest in Water Sustainability and Affordability—Third, we need to recalibrate the financing of our water systems so we achieve sustainable municipal operations and affordable rates for customers. This recalibration necessarily depends upon increased, consistent financial investment in our water infrastructure. It can’t be one and done.
Place Water at the Center of Decision-making—Fourth, underlining all this collective work, we must embrace a sincere water ethic that respects and honors the fundamental role water plays in all life. In practice, this means that we can no longer view unbridled economic growth and prosperity as separate from the natural world. Externalities must be internalized so that we finally prioritize sustainable healthy ecosystems as the key building block for securing healthy communities and economies.
We know that our current poor policies and practices are unsustainable and that they are accelerating water contamination, overdevelopment, climate change, and harmful agriculture dependent on chemical fertilizers and fossil fuels, while woefully underfunding of environmental agencies.
The world’s stores of groundwater, which accumulate over millennia in aquifers, are vanishing at an alarming rate. The result is diminished reliable sources of clean, safe, and affordable water.
We say we value water—but our governments often don’t act like it. It is time for us to hold them accountable, and to practice good water stewardship ourselves.