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Michigan's missing the boat on its freshwater economy

Courtesy of NASA

The Next Idea

You can see Michigan from space. It’s the mitten surrounded by all that blue with the bunny jumping over it.

In fact, almost half of the Great Lakes State is comprised of water. Michigan has more shoreline than any other state in the union, with the exception of Alaska, which is seven times larger.

We touch almost 90% of all the surface freshwater in America – or put another way, 20% of all the readily drinkable water in the entire world. Along with the other states in the Great Lakes Basin and our good Canadian neighbors, we are the stewards of this increasingly scarce resource: clean, clear, and safe water.

For the past 25 years, there has been a mass migration of people leaving Michigan and other North Central states for warmer climates in the Southeast and Southwest. This has shifted the population center of the country and has provided these regions with newfound political power. It has also added tens of millions of people to draw from the same water supply now depleted by decades of drought.

In Georgia, for example, between 2007 and 2009, Lake Lanier, a primary source of water for Atlanta, was drawn down to its lake bed. In desperation, members of the Georgia Legislature proposed redrawing the state boundary line so that it could divert water from the Tennessee River.

For California, matters are even worse.  According the NASA’s GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) Project estimations, it will take 11 trillion gallons of water to replenish the drought losses.

Globally, a recent CBS News story,  "Depleting the Water," suggests that these same shortages are imminent for India, China, and the Middle East.

While politicians in our state and beyond are at odds these days, water protection and preservation has general support across the board.

Twenty years ago, Ismail Serageldin of the World Bank prophetically announced, "The wars of the next century will be fought over water.” 

Given droughts, population shifts, political wrangling, and regional conflicts, more and more it appears he may be right.

So what can we do in Michigan to protect and better utilize our most precious natural resource?

So what’s the Next Idea?

We need to maintain our water in new ways. In the 1960s as a boy, I remember the shore of Lake Michigan littered with all manner of trash and piles of dead alewives. It all but destroyed our lucrative recreational industry. Government, business, and educational institutions worked together to clean up the Great Lakes, including Lake Erie, which had long been considered dead.

While politicians in our state and beyond are at odds these days, water protection and preservation has general support across the board. Special interests can be overcome by motivating the lethargic middle with a well-supported, and publicized, moon shot. Make water one big project that rallies political, financial, and communal support.

Create a slogan that makes the goal clear. “Water Winter Wonderland” worked last time. Identify common challenges: siphoning, invasive species and pollution. Enlist our Canadian friends to move this issue beyond domestic gerrymandering to the international stage where gaming the political system becomes far more complex than any one region or special interest can manage.  

We can also create incentives and training for utilities to add innovative new technologies and techniques for more effective water management. This can be done in several ways:

  • Government investment programs
  • University training certifications
  • Business contract award criteria
  • Uniform water management metrics

Many new water usage, reclamation, and purification technologies are radical improvements over their predecessors, most of which were usually installed decades ago.
The algal bloom in Lake Erie that made the water undrinkable in Toledo last year demonstrates the need to upgrade our systems. While these new technologies offer significant advancements and possibilities, they are expensive. In the 1970s, 70% of the investment in water infrastructure came from the federal government. Today, over 80% comes from state and local governments.

Given the limited resource constraints of most utilities, a new business model and investment strategy is in order. Something akin to a public holding company and correlating fund could be developed to encourage strategic investment.

While we suffer through the brutal Michigan winters that add inches to our water table, we also enjoy the benefits. We drink the water, play in it, and draw resources from it. We are defined by it. Water is our business, and, in Michigan, it’s our future.

Jeff DeGraff is a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

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