Michigan's Water Heritage Project Advances State's Environmental Message

“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”

Jacques Cousteau

On June 4, 2015, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Office of the Great Lakes issued a draft report titled, "Sustaining Michigan’s Water Heritage." The report’s genesis comes from Gov. Rick Snyder’s “special message” on energy and the environment. The governor earlier disclosed his vision on Michigan’s energy future; this moves the ball forward on his environmental message by establishing the Michigan Water Heritage Project.

It is easy to see why water in Michigan would take a front seat in the discussion of environment in Michigan. It provides us with our greatest and most valuable resource, which affects virtually all activities in the state. The report describes an “ecosystem” approach to protecting four “core values” of water – economic, environmental, social and cultural – all of which take equal footing amongst themselves in terms of a 30-year program.

Input from a variety of stakeholders, like state agencies, local governments, Native American tribes, conservation groups, hunters and fishermen, academia and tourism groups, helped drive the report’s focus.

The plan protects more than just the open bodies of water by including groundwater, upland and ecological systems. The strategic vision focuses on actions to do very specific things:

• Protection and restoration of aquatic ecosystems;

• Cleaning waters and maintaining water quality;

• Plan and develop vibrant waterfronts;

• Providing opportunities for access to water and recreation;

• Developing relationships between private industry, universities and government
to invent in innovate ways to better manage and exploit water resources responsibly;

• Investing in water infrastructure, supporting drinking water, wastewater treatment, recreation, and environmental health;

• Monitoring and studying water quality;

• Developing a “multistakeholder collaborative approach” to regulating and
governing water resources; and

• Education about Michigan’s water resources with a goal of instilling an obligation
on the part of its citizens to protect the resource.

The means by which the authors propose to meet these goals utilizes a sustainability approach. That is, a “plan, do, check, act” approach. Each of the program’s key priorities is coupled with specific recommendations, the results of which are studied and measured to determine whether or not they are successful. The report lists 22 key priorities from the nine goals listed above and outlines recommendations along with how success toward reaching those goals is to be measured and which “lead actors” are responsible for seeing them through.

So what types of things does this report intend to address? There are the items that regularly dominate our news about the Great Lakes, including invasive species, toxic algae blooms, aging infrastructure and mercury-contaminated fish. The report focuses on other, less familiar issues like water trails, greenway corridors and green infrastructure.

The goal of the program is to develop a more “holistic” approach, which would include watershed-based approaches for protecting Great Lakes waters. While this seems innocuous, watershed approaches to water quality issues have faced significant opposition in the past, sometimes leading to legal challenges. Part of the concern for the recent definition of “waters of the United States” involves concerns that Clean Water Act regulations would affect upland activities that have the potential of affecting water quality. But many have advocated using local controls to promote watershed protection.

Another issue not addressed by the report is whether any of the actions require government funding. Looking through the list of actors, some of the actions and goals could be ushered by nongovernmental entities. However, some clearly would require state action and an allocation of resources the state apparently does not currently have. While certainly ambitious, the reason for its 30-year timeline may have a lot to do with scarce resources.

Moving forward, the state will host a series of up to five meetings throughout Michigan to discuss the report. In addition, it is soliciting public comments by fax (517.335.4053) or email at Mi-waterstrategy@michigan.gov. The Michigan Water Heritage Project’s YouTube video is available here.

It appears Gov. Snyder is serious about addressing energy and environmental issues, whether or not state legislators are on board. He has found allies outside government to get much of what the program requires and extended the timeline so that not all of it needs to be done at once. Its successes and failures should be well-documented because measuring how the program is faring is one of its features.

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