URC Profile

Preserving Our State’s Freshwater Heritage

Perhaps no resource is as precious or as integral to Michigan’s identity as water. Outlined by Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie—the shape of Michigan’s two peninsulas is unmistakable. In addition to bordering four of the five Great Lakes, Michigan is home to more than 11,000 inland lakes and 36,000 miles of rivers, streams, and wetlands (21st Century Infrastructure Commission 2016).

Beyond defining the state’s boundaries and topography, Michigan’s freshwater resources are fundamental to the state’s economy, providing countless recreation and economic opportunities. A 2014 study—commissioned by the URC—found that one in five jobs in the state rely on water resources (URC 2014).

While Michigan’s abundant freshwater resources provide great economic benefit, they also come with a great deal of responsibility. Michigan’s location at in the center of the Great Lakes Basin—home to 90 percent of the nation’s freshwater resources—means that the state’s role in protecting the health and vitality of the Great Lakes is not just a local or even regional concern but an issue of continental importance.

Problems with Michigan’s water infrastructure have gained national attention in recent years. From the Flint water crisis to harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie, Michigan’s deteriorating water infrastructure causes significant damage to the state’s resources and public health and safety. According to Glen Daigger, professor of engineering practice at U-M, “Aging urban infrastructure is a serious problem facing the nation, and the Flint water crisis is simply one point of proof. As a nation, we must be able to immediately and efficiently provide a solution to, or support for, either the rehabilitation of distressed infrastructure, or replace it with higher-performing systems” (URC 2017).

Recognizing the need for creative solutions to Michigan’s water infrastructure needs and the importance of collaboration in addressing these issues, URC institutions have joined forces to form the Infrastructure Network for Water (inH2O). Founded in March 2017, inH2O converts scientific research into practical applications to address water infrastructure needs in Michigan and across the country. The inH2O initiative will draw on expertise from corridor universities as well as national experts from academia, industry, and government to develop new strategies for improving infrastructure and protecting water resources. Carol Miller—codirector of WSU’s Healthy Urban Waters (HUW) program—explained, “It was a logical decision for these three universities to combine expertise in development of a nation-leading water infrastructure network. We expect inH2O to play a leading role in the research, maintenance, and implementation of numerous technologies and innovations relating to Michigan’s water resources” (URC 2017).

While the URC inH2O partnership is a recent initiative, URC institutions and researchers have worked on water-related issues for years. Through university programs and centers, faculty engage with urban and rural communities statewide to implement new infrastructure technologies, measure the impact of existing infrastructure on residents’ health and well-being, and learn about residents’ greatest needs as they continue to innovate the next generation of technologies.

At MSU, researchers connect with communities in every Michigan county through the MSU Extension program. MSU Extension’s mission is to provide residents, businesses and communities with the resources and science to improve agricultural practices and sustainably and effectively manage natural resources and water infrastructure. In this work, MSU Extension and researchers help communities with issues related to onsite septic systems. In Michigan, 30 percent of households rely on septic systems to manage wastewater, and it is estimated that at least 10 percent of these systems are failing (21st Century Infrastructure Commission 2016).

Until recently, there has been little understanding of the impacts septic systems have on public health and the environment. Even scientists were unsure of the effects until MSU researchers led by Professor Joan Rose—the Homer Nowlin Endowed Chair in Water Research—discovered the connection between the prevalence of septic systems and freshwater contamination in Michigan watersheds.

According to Rose, “All along, we have presumed that onsite wastewater disposal systems were working, but in this study, sample after sample, bacterial concentrations were highest where there were higher numbers of septic systems in the watershed area” (Kastl 2015).

For Professor Rose, the work doesn’t stop at identifying the problem. She calls for “better methods [to] improve management decisions for locating, constructing, and maintaining onsite wastewater treatment systems” (Kastl 2015). Through the Septic System Education program, MSU Extension uses Professor Rose’s research to provide homeowners and communities with educational resources to ensure onsite wastewater management systems are properly installed and maintained. MSU Extension also provides communities with access to expertise for improving planning and developing better policies.

In contrast to MSU’s research and outreach that works in communities statewide, the Healthy Urban Waters program at WSU focuses on water infrastructure needs specific to urban environments. Founded in 2009, HUW works to promote research, provide education, advance new technology, and engage the public (WSU n.d.b.).

Through the HUW program, WSU researchers explore a variety of areas related to water infrastructure and quality, including use and management, biology, engineering and design, and policy. HUW focuses on the Lake Huron to Lake Erie corridor in Southeast Michigan, which serves as the drinking water source for more than six million people (Guzmán 2016). The program’s efforts to support urban water resources along the Huron-Erie Corridor center around improving research capabilities at field stations located on Lake St. Clair in Macomb County, Belle Isle in the Detroit River, and at the Great Lakes Water Authority Water Works Park.

Expanding water quality monitoring sites near Detroit opens the door to urban water quality research. HUW researchers are particularly concerned about the quality of water at beaches in the Huron-Erie Corridor because communities do not require water quality monitoring at these locations (WSU n.d.a.). In more affluent communities along the Huron-Erie Corridor, water quality is monitored regularly, but in economically disadvantaged areas like Detroit, there are limited resources for monitoring, which means problems can arise that expose the public to potentially harmful bacteria levels. WSU’s expanded water monitoring and research capabilities enable significant new research around this issue. HUW’s codirector and WSU professor Jeffrey Ram puts these new resources to use. In the Spring of 2017, Professor Ram received funding through HUW to continue his research of contamination levels and the sources of bacteria at beaches throughout the Huron-Erie Corridor (WSU n.d.a.).

At U-M’s Graham Sustainability Institute Water Center, protecting the Great Lakes is priority one. Founded in 2012, the Water Center connects U-M research with multidisciplinary and multisector perspectives to improve policies and management decisions impacting water resources. The Water Center focuses on four areas: water quality, water quantity, climate change, and habitat (U-M 2017). From researching the impacts of invasive species on native fish populations in Lake Huron to addressing implications of variable water levels for shoreline communities on Lake Michigan, the Water Center has tackled some of the most challenging issues facing the Great Lakes (Plazza 2015).

Despite past success addressing challenges in the Great Lakes, new problems are emerging. About a decade ago, scientists noticed increased frequency and severity of toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie. The problem gained national attention when the City of Toledo advised residents not to drink the water, as toxic algae overwhelmed water treatment facilities. Lake Erie’s troubles are not new, the lake was unofficially declared dead in the 1960’s due to environmental damage, but the lake was reinvigorated following the passage of the Clean Water Act, which cracked down on pollution responsible for the lake’s decline.

U-M’s Water Center researchers are at the center of the latest fight to revive Lake Erie. According to Don Scavia, Professor Emeritus at U-M, “Toxic algae not only harm your drinking water—excess algae also can reduce the fish population in the Great Lakes. We can no longer cross our fingers and hope for the best. We need to look for ways to reduce nutrient runoff so we can protect the health and vitality of our lakes” (Plazza 2015). Supported by the Water Center, U-M researchers are working on a variety of research projects aimed at curbing the impact of harmful algal blooms by predicting bloom severity before they occur, providing ongoing monitoring of water quality to warn municipal water utilities of pending issues, and identifying strategies to reduce harmful phosphorous and nitrogen runoff that proliferates these toxic events.

While sustaining the long-term health and vitality of Michigan’s water resources is difficult work, corridor institutions and partnerships led by the URC provide innovative solutions to the valuable ecosystems’ challenges.