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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Tue, 11/13/2012 - 9:26am
I can't thank the Bridge enough for their coverage of matters like this! Keep up the great work!! I does matter and it certainly makes a difference.
Tue, 11/13/2012 - 10:35am
Agreed! Conservatives denial regarding the causes of global warming have contributed to this and with the defeat of the alternative energy proposal in the election, the global warming issue for our locality is compounded. Few want to invest for the future. Half of Michigan lakes already have restrictions on eating fish due to mercury from coal power plants and cars. It's unfortunate God entrusted Michigan's abundance of water with a voting majority of such selfish and short-sighted people.
Daniel J. LaRouche
Tue, 11/13/2012 - 11:53am
The EPA started working on our water problems over 50 years ago. They made progress but not enough. Now, with the addition of the the symptoms of global warming, I believe that we are out of time. We do not have all of the answers but LID and BMP implementation for stowmwater management is a near term imperative. The tentativenes of our State and local "leaders" has got to be addressed. If they are not willing or capable of doing their jobs (addressing the bigger issues that we face) they need to resign. On the other hand, we (the citizenry) also have to step up and assume our responsibilities (e.g. grass watering and toilet flushing with potable water).
Jeffrey Poling
Tue, 11/13/2012 - 12:05pm
No one wants to address the possibility that someone, somewhere is secretly and illegally sucking water out of the Great Lakes and selling it. But while that is speculation, the most obvious and real threat to the Great Lakes is Chicago, specifically the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900 which resulted in connecting the Great Lakes Basin with the Mississippi watershed. In 1985, a study determined that the Illinois diversion had dropped water levels in Lake Michigan and Huron by 2.5 inches. The City of Chicago in it's westward expansion of communities, allows each community to draw water from Chicago's supply. Although outside of the G.L. watershed, refusing Chicago water to these communities while at the same time, flushing 2.1 billion gallons per day of Lake Michigan water into the Mississippi River, makes refusal politically impossible. During the drought of 1988, then Illinois Governor Jim Thompson tried to divert an additional 4 billion gallons a day into the Mississippi River so they could float their barges. Fortunately, he didn't succeed but this threat is still there. Couple that with the growing demands for water in Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana and even Georgia. So while we can blame it all on global warming and evaporation, which we have little to no control, we had better pay more attention to the demands of our parched neighbors.
Tue, 11/13/2012 - 1:08pm
Exactly right.
Roger Rayle
Tue, 11/13/2012 - 2:43pm
I'm repeating part of my comments to a 3/27/2012 Bridge article here to remind people it's not just water withdrawal we have to worry about... it's protecting the water we still have... -------------- -- The DEQ's semi-secret Collaborative Stakeholders Initiative (CSI) has rushed through recommendations to loosen environmental standards even more and further gut the DEQ's powers to protect the Waters of the State. The CSI committee "stakeholders" included mostly DEQ staff and corporate polluters, their lawyers and consultants... no members from environmental groups or the general public.-------------- It's not enough that foxes were guarding the hen house, with the CSI, the foxes are architects of a new hen house... the hen house that is our Waters of the State. We're 2/3 water... Act Accordingly.
Dave Smethurst
Tue, 11/13/2012 - 3:51pm
Good stuff. Keep up the reporting on conservation issues - few others are doing so. have you looked into the crazies and their concern over Agenda 21 yet? A bill was introduced by Rep. McMasters.
Wed, 11/14/2012 - 8:14am
You know that other states are looking to tap the fresh water we have here, and that the political pull that larger voter blocks and special interests have means that our legislature may cave. Granted, all the states and Canada that have direct shorelines with the great lakes will have some say, but in the long view, eventually there will be some siphoning of the water. That said - the St Clair river flows at a rate of 5200 cubic meteres per second, 24 hours per day - all year long. The flow may be higher during spring thaws. Since a cubic meter of water is roughly 250 gallons, we're losing fresh water at a rate of 1.3 million gallons per second (if my math is wrong, please correct me). THAT'S A LOT OF WASTED WATER! A simpler solution would be to build a dam across the St Clair river egress, install some fish ladders of course, and then re-engineer the methods of how cargo is moved through the river so we can contain that water for the benefit of both countries, AND still maintain commerce. Throw in a couple run of river turbines and get some electricity out the deal too. Shipping costs may go up, but our lakes are precious. New methods like Heavy Lift Air Ships COULD replace water based cargo ships, so we could create new indiustries around that opportunity. We're a smart species, and we know there are huge implications to not having decent supplies of fresh water - mainly for agriculture so we can feed ourselves. If the enitities with vested interests can start working on a plan NOW, then we won't have to scramble later. Just my opinion of course - like millions of others out there.
Thu, 11/15/2012 - 1:34pm
We are a smart species; but unfortunately, the conservatives who do not believe in factual science have too much power in the political scheme of things. Their hindrance over efforts to slow climate change and adapt to the inevitable puts our species in jeopardy.
Lee Smith
Thu, 11/15/2012 - 11:23am
The new high-volume frack weils that Encana and others are drilling now in MIchigan can require 8 million gallons of water each. This water comes from fresh water wells that are drilled adjacent to the wells that are fracked. The fresh water used for fracking is lost to the local fresh water supply since it is either retained in the fracked formation or put into disposal wells. Should Encana or other companies that are currently doing high-volume fracking in Michigan ramp up their drilling, several hundred high-volume frack wells could be drilled in Michigan each year. The Michigan DEQ presently looks at the water withdrawal for fracking as an isolated, local event. Has any consideration of fracking water withdrawal been done on a regional basis?
Maryanne Jorgensen
Sun, 11/18/2012 - 12:03pm
We have records for Lake Michigan indicating the water level in the mid 1960's was as low as it is now. It came back to be so high that buildings along the shoreline were threatened. I would agree that many suggestions may impact our water levels but it does seem to be a natural occurence for the lake level to rise and fall.
Sun, 01/06/2013 - 8:34am
this is great stuff.please keep this topic going strong because we all need to be aware of this in hopes that we all take small steps to conserve water.i live in the lake erie watershed and i see firsthnd the impcts of low water levels