Valuing Water: It’s More than How Much Surrounds Us

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.”

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