Researchers from URC universities share solutions for problem plaguing roads, residents

DETROIT – Researchers from Michigan’s three universities that make up the University Research Corridor (URC) held a roundtable discussion today with community leaders and state and local lawmakers to discuss ways to deal with the frequent flooding being experienced in Detroit and other Southeast Michigan cities after storms. Heavy rainfall last June left thousands without power and freeways flooded and impassible, and ways are being sought to make communities more resilient when confronted with severe weather.

URC experts ‒ including Wayne State University Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Chair William Shuster and University of Michigan environmental epidemiologist Carina Gronlund ‒ met at the WSU Integrative Biosciences Center (IBio) to share ideas with Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash; Bethany J. Howard, Climate Equity Coordinator with Eastside Community Network in Detroit; and state and local officials.

“We’ve seen the heartbreak of thousands of Detroiters and Southeast Michigan residents who repeatedly have experienced hardships and health threats from the rising waters,” said Britany Affolter-Caine, URC executive director. “Researchers at URC universities are laser-focused on solving these challenges and on sharing what they know with lawmakers, community leaders and the public.”

An alliance of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, the URC has seen its institutions over the past five years conduct $493.8 million in environmental health research and service, and $1.64 billion in infrastructure-related research. Among the researchers’ goals is bringing updated engineering, smart technology and improved safety to flood-prone areas.

During today’s roundtable, participants discussed better ways to handle storm water, improve pumping stations and other infrastructure, address health effects of flooding and help disaster recovery in historically marginalized and low-income communities.

Shuster spoke about how he and his Wayne State colleagues are engaged with community and utility company partners to develop solutions that will tap local knowledge to create a more robust, responsive infrastructure in the face of increasingly severe storms.

“We know that water always wins, as it has the time and energy to find the paths of least resistance, which are often our basements or other infrastructure,” he said. “We need to respond to the way that water plays this game and give it other options. This means retrofitting residential and regional infrastructures, communicating clearly and acting on the prospects for lowering risk through emergency preparedness and response and consistent, comprehensive redress of infrastructure problems.

“We are proud to be doing vital work in this area with all three URC universities to find and share solutions,” he added.

At the University of Michigan, Gronlund studies how factors involving social, economic, health and the built environment affect communities’ vulnerability to extreme heat and precipitation, which can help cities adapt to heat waves and heavy rainfall in a changing climate.

“Severe weather events will continue and intensify, creating more events of flooding and other serious environmental hazards,” Gronlund said. “Developing greater resiliency in infrastructure and response systems is important in helping cities and communities adapt to climate change.”

Howard noted that the Eastside Community Network is focused on advocating for new policies, infrastructure development and community education that prepare for a changing climate.

“We need to adopt the necessary changes to promote urban climate resilience among community residents and the city of Detroit,” she said. “This is important not only for our residents’ health but that of our community as a whole.”

Oakland County Water Resource Commissioner Jim Nash said water authorities throughout Southeast Michigan are taking steps to keep more severe storms from overwhelming regional wastewater systems, particularly in the most vulnerable communities.

“Coordination across water and wastewater authorities throughout Southeast Michigan is leading to greater efficiencies, and working with university researchers and community leaders is leading to smarter solutions,” he said.

State Rep. Joe Tate, whose district includes Detroit, chaired Monday’s event. He said the collaboration with the three URC universities is showing how research done on campus has real-life applications for communities around the state, helping solve new challenges as they arise.

“Flooding has been a serious concern for residents in my district, throughout Southeast Michigan and across our state,” he said. “Sharing information among experts from our research universities, communities and the private sector enables us to rebuild our infrastructure and reduce our risks from flooding in smarter, more efficient and effective ways.”

Monday’s roundtable discussion was the first of three stops in the URC’s Health Threats Tour that includes the release of a new URC report brief, Tackling Environmental Health Threats. The next stop on the tour will take place on Monday, April 25 at MSU Grand Rapids Research Center. It will focus on water and PFAS, the toxic fluorochemicals have been found in water supplies around the state. The tour will finish with a Monday, May 16 roundtable discussion in Traverse City addressing microplastics in the Great Lakes and other Michigan waterways.