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Sustaining America's Inland Seas

What’s good for fresh water is good for Michigan’s economy

May 28, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Bruce Giffin

Plans to restore and sustainably redevelop Lake Michigan’s south shoreline are part of a movement that makes pure, fresh water central to the Great Lakes Basin’s economy.

In the race to attract talented workers and lure new economic opportunities, one of Michigan’s great advantages is a robust water supply. As Ohio Governor Bob Taft put it: “Living in one of the Great Lakes states is a bit like winning the lottery. The jackpot is 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water. That’s an incredibly valuable resource right here on our doorstep.”

The big question is whether Michigan has the creativity, smarts, and will to base its economic future on a resource that most residents take for granted. How else to explain why the Great Lakes Basin continues to suffer from a host of familiar problems: Alien species invasions, over-pumped aquifers, and the widespread toxic contamination that stems from industrial discharges, fertilizer runoff, storm-water crud, raw sewage, and other pollutants?

A report released earlier this month by the Michigan Land Use Institute, entitled Water Works, moves us beyond our static present to a point where the old problems are solved and a new arena of opportunity arises, one that is based on using our splendid supply of clean fresh water in new and sustainable ways. For almost a year, the Institute has scoured the state for evidence that we are not alone in envisioning and securing a new future by helping to put the Great Lakes to work in more productive ways that reduce business costs, save tax dollars, and transform Michigan’s economy.

Boosting Profits, Equity, and Ecology
The Institute found that many share this vision. Water Works reports that, in select places, industries and elected officials are going back to the well and again putting pure, fresh water at the center of strategic thinking to bolster Michigan’s prosperity.  Pioneering industrialists like executives at Ford Motor Company, we discovered, are proving that smarter approaches to conserving the quality and quantity of water increase their competitiveness. They are retrofitting factories to reduce water needs; slashing the chemical use, energy demands, and wastewater disposal costs that come with those needs; and saving real dollars.

Urban leaders are rediscovering that water works to make their cities more attractive places to live and labor. They reclaim waterfronts buried in their industrial past and transform them into sites for new homes, businesses, and recreational opportunities.

Entrepreneurs find that, in an age that prizes information, knowing how to better manage, conserve, and clean water works to generate new economic opportunities. They now pursue venture capital for their fresh, innovative projects.

Taken together, the work of these progressive business and civic leaders form the foundation of a growing movement to establish sustainability as the central organizing principle for water management in the Great Lakes Basin. Sustainability is both a philosophy and a practice. It means a form of development that is able to carry on indefinitely, simultaneously boosting profits, building social equity, and enhancing, rather than steadily degrading, the natural environment.

Water Works concludes that viewing water resource development through this three-dimensional lens is essential to achieving a higher quality of life. Such thinking comes none too soon. Michigan alone lost nearly a quarter of a million jobs since 2000; business and municipal costs are rising; revenues are shrinking and budgets are busting.

But Water Works also asserts that another, worldwide challenges provides an opportunity for reversing Michigan’s downward trend: The supply of fresh water on the planet is decreasing. Globalization, climate change, and population increases are pushing up the demand for fresh water and the technologies to keep it fresh. Water Works argues that if the people of the Great Lakes can maintain the superior quality and quantity of the basin’s water resource — which forms 90 percent of the United State’s and one-fifth of the world’s freshwater reserves — the region could become an oasis of abundance amidst increasing freshwater scarcity.

Water Works in Michigan
Water, as most Michiganders know, has always worked for Michigan. Wild swamps fattened the beavers that made fortunes for trappers in the territory’s early outposts. The roaming rivers and inland seas delivered the lumber, goods, and industrious people — teachers, farmers, craftsmen, and inventers — to anchor the heartland of the new nation. Streams and groundwater sources gave rise to the growing communities, farms, and famous factories that built, defended, and propelled the United States.

Water is destined to continue to play a vital role as the region’s economy and culture evolve. Michigan invested more than $917 million between 1992 and 2001 in programs designed specifically to restore and protect Great Lakes water, according to federal figures. In November 2002, Michigan voters approved a $1 billion bond to help repair outdated sewers and protect state waterways. Now Congress proposes to invest as much as $6 billion to restore the Great Lakes.

But that seemingly generous sum shrinks quickly in the face of the projected repair bill for just one major metropolitan sewer system. Fixing Detroit’s system, for example, will cost at least $26 billion and is utterly necessary to guarantee the healing of the Great Lakes that Congress proposes to finance. What’s more, the proposed funding does not address the ongoing human development practices that continue to steadily degrade the lakes.

The fundamental problem is that Great Lakes governments, Michigan’s included, fail to aggressively advance an ethic of water use and development that is able to sustain the region’s economy, culture, and environment.

During her 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Democrat Jennifer Granholm called for advancing a pattern of water use that benefits both the economy and ecology. The previous year, Michigan’s Great Lakes Conservation Task Force, which was chaired by Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, acknowledged that changing the mindset about the importance of improving Great Lakes stewardship was perhaps the greatest challenge facing state policymakers.

Water Works is a tool for helping the governor and lawmakers achieve both goals. Great Lakes policymaking essentially has stalled in Michigan because an underlying principle of the debate holds that what is good for the water resource is bad for business. Water Works makes the case that, ultimately, what is good for water is good for business, and the economy. The report documents real-world examples of how the traditional view of water use and protection is changing in ways that simultaneously lower corporate costs, minimize the price of government, safeguard state waters, and strengthen communities.

Michigan can join and significantly advance this important new movement by developing the modern vision, rules, and investment strategy that enable present-day water users to take advantage of the resource now. Doing so ensures that the liquid gold that make us truly the world’s Water Wonderland remains available in a clean, affordable, and robust condition for future environmental and economic needs.

Andy Guy, who researched and wrote Water Works, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s water policy specialist. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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