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Water expert says conservation is in Michigan’s future

The Great Lakes could reach record low water levels next year. With the state’s defining natural features dropping after a hot, dry summer, Bridge asked Alan Steinman, president of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University and a leader on water issues in the Great Lakes region since moving here in 2001, to talk about what a more arid Michigan might mean to the state’s culture and economy.

Bridge: The Great Lakes are approaching historic lows. Can you sketch out what the implications are in the big picture?

A: In Lake Michigan and Huron, which are treated as one hydrologic unit, levels have been going down more or less for the last 15 years. They’ve reached a point now where, as they get close to the all-time recorded minimum lows, it’s starting to get more press. The International Joint Commission has been studying water levels through the International Upper Great Lakes Study, trying to identify the causative factors behind them.

There was some concern that the dredging in the St. Clair River had actually increased the size of the “drain at the bottom of the bathtub.” And what the study showed was that the dredging does contribute a couple of inches to the low water levels, but most of it was attributable to changes we’ve had in the climate in the last 15-20 years. There’s been more evaporation and less precipitation, and when you look at that cumulatively that results in lower water levels.

As far as the implications, it depends on what sector you’re looking at. If you’re looking at the ecological factors, the habitats that are most at risk are our coastal wetlands. And those are critical habitats for our fish and wildlife populations, and they also serve to filter out nutrients from the watersheds before they reach the Great Lakes. So, some critical concerns there.

Then you can look at the economic impacts. When we talk about our marinas, there are going to be slips that will no longer be able to hold boats because the draft has been reduced so much. There may be connecting waterways that may be affected, too. If you look at our commercial vessels, they’ll have to light-load because there’s no longer enough draft to get in and out of these channels. That has a huge economic impact. Hydroelectric facilities with intake pipes that go into the water might be sucking air.

Balancing these very divergent interests is a very difficult issue. That’s why the Great Lakes study, where they’re trying to identify a new regulation schedule that will balance all these competing demands, is a very tough nut to crack. And the reality is that in many of these environmental decisions like this one is that the best decision is the one that pisses off everybody equally.

Bridge: What can be done at this point?

A: Nothing that we do today will have an immediate impact, but we can look on these -- at both the individual and public-works levels -- for potential solutions. On an individual basis, we need to conserve water better. We’re terrible at that because we’re complacent. There is so much water around us compared to other geographic areas. But it behooves us to be more conservation-oriented. I suspect that in 50 years, generations will look back and say, “Can you believe they used potable water to sprinkle grass?” Talk about an absurd use of water. Or that we use potable water to flush our toilets.

But if you’re talking about something larger, the study did look at things that can be done in the St. Clair River to hold the water back. Inflatable bladders, weirs, all of these large engineering solutions cost a lot of money and would take years to get the permitting in place, if they ever could. But those kinds of solutions would hold a few inches back. Another would be to hold water back, or let more water out of, Lake Superior. They all have cascading impacts, and the law of unintended consequences can come back and bite you.

We want to be nimble and flexible to adapt to changing climatic conditions. We don’t expect water levels to stay low forever. We expect them to come back up. Whether they’ll come back up to the long-term mean is really unknown.

Bridge: What about the rivers? Particularly in Northern Michigan, they’re very tied to the health of the local environment and economy.

A: They’re groundwater-fed, and, at least in the short term, they’re doing fine. The biggest issue in some of those systems is whether there’s too much extraction, and this gets back to bottled water. I’m proud to say the state of Michigan is pretty far ahead on this topic, because a few years ago we formed a groundwater conservation advisory council, and we developed a water-withdrawal assessment tool, which really put us ahead of the curve.

Bridge: You said it’s been a 15-year cycle to get to this point, but let’s assume climate change is happening. What are the implications for a long-term dry spell in Michigan?

A: The climatic models are fraught with uncertainty, so you always have to be careful. These models are developed for global circulation, and then they’re downscaled to local regions. The more you do that, the more the uncertainty increases.

With that caveat, on average, the reality is that precipitation is estimated to be about equal to what we currently have. The difference is, the distribution and the type of precipitation is anticipated to change. Instead of having relatively uniform precipitation across the year, we’re anticipating it will come in large, episodic events -- major storms, followed by long dry spells.

As the climate warms, the atmosphere can hold more precipitation, and so, when it does dump it, it dumps out more at once. So we might have a major snowstorm, but the next week it may warm up into the 40s, and it will all melt instead of staying through January, February and March.

This is what we call, in scientific literature, the positive feedback loop. That doesn’t mean it has a positive consequence, only that the loop feeds on itself. As the temps warm, as the waters warm, it gets more difficult for ice to form, you have more evaporation, more warming, and that just feeds the cycle. So we have the potential to see more open water, less ice, more evaporation and so on.

Bridge: I’m really depressed, thanks.

A: My goal is not to be a purveyor of doom. My goal is to offer shreds of hope. A lot of things we can do as individuals are admittedly small steps, but cumulatively, they do make a difference. Whether it’s biking or walking or carpooling, small things do make a difference.

Bridge: Is there a timeline for recovery in water levels?

A: I have no clue. The data suggests the Great Lakes hydrologic system operates on two periodicities. One is about 33 years, the other is about 160 years. Since 1986 is the last high-water level, we should be coming up in this decade, if the model follows suit. But there’s no guarantee that will happen.

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