Liquid assets: We begin a series on the water that sustains us all

Though it is often taken for granted, Southeast Michigan is a Great Lakes metropolis. It is time to rethink our defining assets and rebrand ourselves as a freshwater capital.

Our region is situated in the heart of a water system that accounts for 84 percent of the surface fresh water found in North America and 21 percent of the world’s freshwater supply. Detroit's geography gives it a competitive edge over other major metropolitan areas and economic development potential of which few can dream. A new movement to protect, restore, and capitalize on our fresh water uniqueness is emerging, though it has yet to be named.

Freshwater is an ingrained part of our culture and a key component of our region’s brand. This, of course, is nothing new--the French colonists who established the first permanent settlement in our region named the place deTroit after its defining geographical feature, the wide strait connecting Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.

The Great Seal of the State of Michigan bears the Latin motto Si Quæris Peninsulam Amœnam Circumspice, which translates, "If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you." In order for our peninsula to remain pleasant, we must take up the mantle of the other Latin phrase on the Great Seal, Tuebor, or "I will defend," and apply it to our treatment of our water system.

Though most of us only encounter Great Lakes on vacation, we interact with the Great Lakes water system every day.

Whether you live on a lake in central Oakland County in the Rouge River headwaters, cross over the winding branches of the Clinton River on your commute to work, hear the foghorns of freighters on the St. Clair or Detroit Rivers from your porch in Port Huron, Detroit, or Wyandotte, or simply flush your toilet in Flushing, you are affecting the Great Lakes water basin. After all, everyone in Metro Detroit lives in a watershed (find out which watershed you live in by clicking here).

Donald Carpenter, a professor of engineering at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield and leading researcher in the area of water systems, points out, "Anything people do on their own property influences the Great Lakes basin. The water cycle and watersheds are covered through seventh grade, but functional knowledge is lost by the time (most people) are in college."

These actions have effects at various levels, starting with the site, or individual lot on which a home sits, to subdivision watersheds, to sub-basins like lake or river watersheds, all the way up to the Great Lakes basin. Says Carpenter, "Cumulatively, individual actions play a huge role in affecting water quality in the Great Lakes Basin. The water flowing off your driveway has far reaching influence."

For over a century, however, defense of our water system was not a common concern. Indeed, our relationship with our water system was purely exploitative. The Great Lakes and their adjoining waterways were viewed as little more than industrial inputs.

The Ford Rouge factory's strategic location at the confluence of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers helped Henry Ford realize his vision of a vertically integrated manufacturing system: the Great Lakes water system allowed raw materials like iron ore from the Upper Peninsula to be shipped in via lake freighters and completed automobiles to be shipped out conveniently. The externalities of heavy industry, however, would take their toll on the health of the water system. One only has to look down the channelized portion of the Rouge River to see the disharmony of industry and nature.

The rapid expansion of population during our region's industrial heyday required rapid infrastructure development. Now our infrastructure is aging and can best be described as gray, comprised of concrete and metal drainage and sewer systems that simply convey storm and wastewater to treatment facilities, or worse, into natural bodies of water. The link between green infrastructure development and water quality does not immediately occur to the lay public, who associate "green" more with recycling and lowering carbon emissions than other aspects of environmental quality like healthy waters.

While the discussion of a green economy and reducing cities' carbon footprints has been a popular subject in recent years, few have considered our water resources as important assets and potential economic drivers.

The Brookings Institution has estimated that every $1 invested in Great Lakes restoration results in $1.50 to $2.50 in short-term economic benefits. In the long term, the economic benefits of Great Lakes restoration efforts will almost double the initial investment. Benefits include increased property values, improvements to quality of life, and lower municipal water treatment costs. In this era in which metropolitan areas are feeling the effects of climate change more acutely and unsustainable development is occurring in water-poor areas like Phoenix and Atlanta, now is the time for Metro Detroit to protect its freshwater assets to ensure future economic growth and ecological health.

The threats to improving the Great Lakes water system are many, ranging from combined sewer overflows to industrial contamination to non-point sources of pollution to invasive species…not to mention a fragmented political system that poses challenges to taking unified action to restore and protect our freshwater assets. Counties, cities, townships, and villages divide our region. Watersheds, however, are ignorant of our invented distinctions.

Though the threats are daunting, healthy waters are possible. While many of the solutions to restoring and protecting our water system require large-scale, coordinated infrastructure change, many improvements can result from individual actions.

We are approaching several opportunities to transition our local infrastructure from gray to green and blue. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) is preparing a regional "Green Infrastructure Vision" document (to be released in 2014) and the Detroit Works Project is set to release a report regarding blue/green infrastructure this month.

Lawrence Technological University recently orchestrated a controlled burn along tributaries of the Rouge River to limit invasive species and strengthen native plant species, which are more effective in filtering pollutants that enter the waters. The folks at the Green Garage in Midtown Detroit developed the Green Alley, which, in its own small way, helps filter stormwater runoff that eventually enters the Great Lakes water system. The Green Alley, the first of its kind in the CIty of Detroit, will serve as a thoughtful model not only for the beautification of public space, but also for how small-scale projects can positively influence the health of an ecological system.

When the growing business district on Michigan Avenue in Corktown had to meet an increased demand for parking, business owners facilitated this growth by designing a parking lot that allowed stormwater to run into the ground where it is naturally filtered rather than directly into the sewer system, where it would carry pollutants with it. Elegant solutions to marrying our gray infrastructure to green and blue solutions to water quality problems are possible.

This is the first feature in a series intended to introduce solutions to issues affecting the Great Lakes basin and highlight our unique identity as a freshwater metropolis. In the coming months, we will highlight individual, local, and regional efforts to improve our quality of life through good stewardship of one of our most precious resources, the water system that surrounds us. 

Matthew Lewis is project editor for this series, which alternates monthly in Model D and sister publication MetromodeOur partners for this project are Lawrence Technological University and the Erb Family Foundation.

Photos of controlled burn by Eric Pope.

Photos of Detroit's Green Alley by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative. 
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