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Building more green infrastructure in the Great Lakes region

A bioswale
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
This is Detroit's first bioswale, a piece of green infrastructure in the making.

Green infrastructure is the focus of a conference at Detroit’s Cobo Center this week.

The people behind it say it’s time to start thinking differently about how we handle storm water throughout the Great Lakes; but make sure we do it right.

You can think about green infrastructure as a different kind of plumbing for storm water.

Jon Allan directs the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes.

“It’s not just pipes-and-pumps-plumbing,” he says. “It’s using natural flow, it’s using storage, it’s getting infiltration, getting water into ground, and into the groundwater system.”

Allan says that for generations, we’ve built that infrastructure around one basic idea: capturing storm water in big pipes, and shooting it out of the sewage system as fast as we can.

But that can cause big problems, such as sewage overflows that pollute rivers and lakes, among other things.

There are already a number of green infrastructure projects throughout the Great Lakes.

But this week’s conference is about the bigger picture. In the organizers’ own words, it’s about “integrated storm water management from Duluth to Quebec.”

But Andy Reese sounds a note of caution on that. Reese is Vice President of AMEC Environment and Infrastructure, a consulting firm.

“Success is not every property in ‘x-y-z’ city building green infrastructure by next week. Success is we’re turning the Queen Mary, and she’s not going to crash into the dock," he says.

Reese says that means starting with demonstration projects that work. It means getting state and local governments to make the right rules for green infrastructure. And it especially means getting some big business partners on board.

“And we’ll find that the environment that we create with green infrastructure will be loved by everyone, and they’ll never want to go back,” he says.

Office of the Great Lakes Director Jon Allan says this conference is a way to start sharing ideas, and talking about what works.

He says one of biggest barriers is that we just tend to stick with what we know, even if what we know is more expensive and less efficient than it could be.

“We’ve known how to manage storm water in traditional ways for a long time. Green infrastructure will have sort of come into its own when it’s just another tool in the toolbox," says Allan.

In other words, Allan says we’ll know green infrastructure has truly made it when we don’t need to have conferences about it anymore.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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