Michigan's Blue Bubble

Michigan doesn’t act like water is it's most valuable asset. Let’s be honest.

No doubt there are plenty of news reports and speeches dedicated to the urgent necessity of eliminating sewage spills into rivers, preventing the spread of invasive species in the Great Lakes, restoring coastal habitats, and sustaining robust water supplies.

But you could comfortably steer a freighter full of zebra mussels through the gap between our words and our actions. And the trajectory of our status quo development and investment patterns ensure degradation will outpace restoration in the foreseeable future. We pretend we value water and the Great Lakes.

After more than 8 years of reporting at the intersection of Great Lakes policy and Michigan’s economic transformation, I’m confident saying that this is the leading reason why: The Great Lakes State – from the garbage collectors to the governor’s mansion – severely underestimates what an incredibly important and strategic resource water is in the 21st century.

We’re short on imagination, leadership, and strategy to leverage our ground and surface waters in a way that simultaneously boosts economic competitiveness and environmental stewardship. And our timing could not be worse.

Here are the facts: Water, at least on Earth, is a finite resource. Rampant population growth and climate change promises more and more water-seeking people and companies. And Michigan sits smack in the middle of the largest supply of clean fresh water on the planet.

What’s more, access to vibrant waterways and water-based recreation regularly ranks among the top amenities young, talented, and mobile workers look for when choosing a place to live.

As Bill Testa, the vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, once told me: “Jobs today are not so much tied to ports and minerals and transportation systems, but rather to intellectual work, which can take place anywhere. More than ever, people want to live and work near the water. Work location has increasingly become more footloose and fancy-free. Jobs follow people. And people go where life is good.”

So what strategic moves is Michigan making to leverage the Great Lakes and lure those people here? Well, there certainly is a lot of talk about bringing the state’s water agenda into 2008.

State leaders, for example, recently floated the idea of voting on a statewide bond to fund a 10-year environmental cleanup program.

Conservationists, local officials, and bureaucrats across America’s Great Lakes region have debated a $20 billion strategy to restore the region’s waterways and shorelines for years now.

The Michigan Legislature is debating a modern policy to get a grip on reckless water withdrawals and guarantee the state never runs dry. But they're struggling to close the deal.

And as Deborah Johnson Wood reports in this week’s issue of Rapid Growth, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation now is talking about targeting the global water tech industry. The agency aims to generate jobs, attract private investment, and boost the state's overall competitiveness by promoting the research, development, commercialization, and deployment of modern technologies and management practices to sustain clean fresh water resources. The effort eventually could accelerate water restoration and protection efforts at home and abroad.

Amidst all the talk of big, bold ideas, however, are serious actions moving the state in an entirely different direction.

The state, for example, is defunding water restoration efforts in the departments of Environmental Quality and Natural Resources; permitting multinational corporations to mine, bottle, and sell high quality H2O with little regard for the long-term needs of nearby streams and growing communities; and positioning to build not one but several coal-fired power plants guaranteed to spew still more toxic mercury into the lakes and rivers. Extra dill and lemon on that salmon, please.

Grand Rapids and West Michigan rank among the leaders in the Great Lakes region when it comes to demonstrating the creativity, smarts, and will to better manage, conserve, and clean waterways. But we still park plow trucks, store fire hydrants, and accept parking lots – instead of green space, public plazas, or restaurants – on the banks of the Grand River in the heart of the central city. We must act differently if the goal is to make the most of our liquid assets and, by extension, promote a healthy and prosperous future.

What’s ironic is that water has always been at the center of Michigan’s success. Wild swamps, after all, fattened the beavers that made fortunes for trappers in the frontier days. Roaming rivers and inland seas delivered the industrious people – teachers, farmers, craftsmen, and inventors – who settled the region. And the lakes and robust groundwater sources gave rise to the cities, farms, and factories that launched the Industrial Era.

Water is destined to play a vital role as Michigan's economy and culture evolve into the Digital Age. What's needed is a widely understood and supported vision for how that happens. We know the strength of our quality of life and competitiveness is directly related to the health and accessibility of our lakes, rivers, and underground water reserves. Now we need to act.

Andy Guy, the managing editor at Rapid Growth Media, is a journalist who lives in Grand Rapids. He's also a project director at the Michigan Land Use Institute and blogs at Great Lakes Guy.

Kite boarding on Lake Michigan near White Lake

Oxbow Lake - Saugatuck/Douglas

Strolling the pier at White Lake

Kayaking on White Lake

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
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