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Opinion: Water management is crucial to protecting Michigan’s environment

We love our water here in Michigan. Whether it’s sitting on a beach, relaxing with a fishing pole, or kids laughing as they run through a sprinkler, water is a part of who we are in the Great Lakes State.

Yet, over the past few years, we Michiganders are experiencing more and more flooding and extreme water-related weather events. They’re costing us homes, roads, a sense of security and even lives. Debated as it may be, the science shows many of these events are associated with climate change. But as with all things climate and weather, the root causes and potential solutions are complicated.

Matt Comben
Matt Comben is a senior geographic information system specialist at Barr Engineering Co. in Ann Arbor. (Courtesy photo)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States’ population has nearly doubled over the past 50 years which, among a myriad other things, brings a greater demand for space. We are developing land that previously lay untouched, and we’re doing so at a rapid rate. There are lots of reasons it matters, but as a geographic information system (GIS) specialist, one of the aspects that matters to me is parking lots.

Yes, that’s an oversimplification, but not by much. Developed land tends to be paved, which has a significant impact on water movement in the area. Pavement – including buildings, parking lots and roads – is impervious, meaning it does not allow water to penetrate the earth.

An expected result of climate change is an increase in storms capable of producing a large amount of rainfall, whether for a short or long duration. Additionally, these storms are occurring early in the year when snow is still on the ground, leading to an acceleration in melting – a double whammy.

What do you get when you combine excess precipitation with impervious surfaces? Floods.

As we begin to brainstorm solutions to extreme flooding and other water-related events, the conversation comes back to infrastructure. Apartments, condos, big-box stores and restaurants are all tangible signs of development. We must remember growth of this type requires water management, both on the macro and micro scale.

Rainfall needs to be managed and routed via storm sewers at the micro level. And on a grander scale, previously undeveloped land likely requires floodplain management and protection from flood-prone bodies of water. Add on top of this the aging infrastructure surrounding us, and it is crucial our local, state and federal governments make meaningful, proactive moves toward protecting our communities.

As we look to Michigan’s water management strategy, our ability to safely control water is crucial to protecting life and property. We can achieve these goals in ways that are beneficial to the environment. Cities and municipalities throughout the Great Lakes including Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Milwaukee and Minneapolis are utilizing techniques such as bioretention features and rain gardens to help regulate water. Techniques like these can often be integrated into existing infrastructure construction projects with little additional cost and great benefits.

I could list off dozens of storm and waste water management practices government organizations can take to limit pollution run-off and control flooding and other damaging effects. But the real bottom line is that better and proactive water management practices lead to less flooding and pollution, and it can’t be the responsibility of the public sector alone.

Private industry, especially large landowners ranging from manufacturing facilities to distribution centers and more, must take an active role in water-management solutions. Done right, water management can result in cost-savings. More importantly, if we want to maintain one of our most cherished natural resources, water management solutions are the right thing to do.

Climate change is scary, but we must acknowledge there is a problem, and likely a connection between our rapid industrialization and associated increase in extreme weather events. And we must start taking meaningful steps to change our behaviors.

It is our collective responsibility to do our best to slow and eventually stop climate change and its impacts on our lives and livelihoods. Water management is a start, but in a state surrounded by and filled with water, it’s a powerful start.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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