RapidBlog: How a thin blue thread connects California's water crisis to Michigan's future

What messages for Michigan are written in the recent headlines about the California water shortage? After a trip to the Bay Area, WMEAC Executive Director and self-proclaimed protector of water Rachel Hood shares some climate signals and prophecies for our Great Lakes state.
In February, my family flew to California to visit my in-laws in the San Francisco area. It poured constantly for days, and our California family was visibly relieved for rain. Three years of drought were weighing heavily in our conversations. The lawn had been removed and drought tolerant plants were maturing; buckets were in showers; and the toilets were… mellow. The storms passed, delivering 13 inches of rain across the region.  SF Gate reported nearby water reservoirs were up to 71 Rachel Hood, photo by Terry Johnston.percent and 64 percent of their normal capacity. Not enough to call policy makers to ease water restrictions, rather, the storm solidified bad news - more water restrictions ahead.

In a decade of visits to the Bay Area, I’ve never left without having a conversation about water scarcity. When it came time to decide where to live and raise our kids, my husband and I chose Michigan for financial and professional factors, but also for water. We’ve both worked in environmental advocacy and understood a time would come – likely sooner rather than later - when we would end up moving back to Michigan for water.

NASA was recently caught in ‘alarmist headlines’, declaring California has one year of water left. Technically, false, but nonetheless, experts studying ground and surface waters are all in agreement: there isn’t enough water. The LA Times recently reported that agricultural production in California’s San Joaquin Valley will not be sustainable into the future. Impacts of water overuse are painfully clear: the ground is collapsing one foot a year. Infrastructure is failing: roads, bridges, wells, irrigation canals.

Californians and Michiganders don’t like to be compared, but we share commonalities. We share a semi-serious joke about northern and southern populations splitting to form independent states. We love the outdoors. Tourism and agriculture are top industries, and both require great water. So, what do we have in common when it comes to drought? More than most Michiganders realize.

For over a century, California’s agricultural industry demanded more water than it returned to her ancient aquifers. As chairman of the Irrigation Training and Research Center at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Charles Burt has done the math around crop water usage and groundwater consumption, estimating that “1 million to 1.5 million acres [of San Joaquin agricultural land] will go out of production in coming years. There are just more straws in there than there is water…It's been going on for a long time.”

It’s reasonable to assume that some of those acres will be relocated to Michigan. Climate change is extending our growing season and, well, Michigan is a water wonderland, right?

But, like our farmer friends in California, Mother Nature sent Ottawa County’s fruit belt notice via ancient, salty, brackish water coming up in wells. In 2012 MSU’s Institute for Water Research reported that static water levels in both glacial and bedrock aquifers have significantly declined. Further, the current volume of groundwater withdrawals in Ottawa County isn’t sustainable. This is happening throughout the basin.

In the business of climate change, we call this a ‘climate signal’ – the ecosystem demonstrating that a century of human impact outpaces nature’s capacity to replenish herself. Or, as my wise husband says, “Nature bats last."

In Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Forever, Maude Barlow reported that in 2004 Great Lakes Communities consumed 2 billion gallons of water daily that was not returned to the watershed. Overuse of non-renewable glacial water supplies for the production of commodities – wheat, corn, meat, bottled water – will threaten the sustainability of the Great Lakes. Further, renewable water resources are also in decline. More and more climate signals are coming from our lakes – dead zones, huge algae blooms and more. We need to listen.

So what messages for Michigan are written in the narrative of California’s decline and in the signals from water wells throughout the basin?
  1. Protect farmland and support local and sustainable farmers. Future land prices will become increasingly prohibitive for small farmers.
  2. Demand sustainable agricultural practices.
  3. Invest in the blue economy: water conservation science and technology should be targets in our economic diversification plan.
  4. Embed water conservation technologies, policies, and practices into urban infrastructure investments.
  5. Protect groundwater as part of the public trust.
  6. Prioritize finalizing Michigan’s unique groundwater withdrawal assessment tool to sustain water-dependent industries.
  7. Stop high volume horizontal fracking. It wastes precious water for energy we can get from the sun.
After giving up proximity to our family for proximity to a wealth of freshwater, nothing paralyzes me more than knowing that our children may see the Great Lakes ecosystems die in their lifetimes. Michigan must heed the warning California’s water crisis embodies and take action now. If we burden the next generation with this work, we may be too late.

Water, the source of life and the thin blue thread that connects us all, can’t be perceived as a dividing line. Rather, water is a life force that will reinvigorate the Great Lakes economy. Sustaining our water systems begins today.  

Rachel Hood is the Executive Director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. She lives on the Grand River in Grand Rapids with her two girls and husband.
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