Climate change could bring wetter conditions to the Midwest, bringing flooding, coastal erosion and damage to infrastructure and private property, while negatively impacting water quality and economic productivity.
When compared with drier regions of the country, water conservation in the Great Lakes region would not seem to be a pressing concern since the Great Lakes contain approximately 20% of the surface freshwater in the world and are connected to a dense web of rivers. Climate change could bring wetter conditions to the Midwest, bringing flooding, coastal erosion, damage to infrastructure and private property, while negatively impacting water quality and economic productivity.
As devastating as these problems have been, they predictably derive from increased precipitation, temperature and a rising water table. However, surprisingly these climate impacts have also marked the decline in available freshwater for communities that sit just outside the Great Lakes basin due to the rapid depletion and contamination of inland aquifers. As the size and density of Midwestern metro areas and agricultural land continues to grow, the stressors that this development places on freshwater resources has presented the stark need for water conservation in a region that is seemingly awash in freshwater.
Compared with other regions of the U.S. and globally, governments throughout the Great Lakes basin have been ahead of the curve in managing water within the basin. In December 2008, the “Great Lakes Water Resources Compact” was enacted by a coalition of eight American states (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) and two Canadian provinces (Ontario, Quebec) to focus specifically on managing water quality, quantity and habitat within the Great Lakes. A core component of the Compact has been the institution of clear restrictions on diverting Great Lakes water to communities outside of the basin. The adoption of these regulations reflected very realistic concerns that water shortages and population growth both in the American West and Asia would place a demand on Great Lakes water that would threaten the supply and health of the freshwater ecosystem. Understanding that the preservation of the region’s freshwater is critical to the health of communities, environment and agriculture, the Compact reinforces the best practice that all the use and consumption of this invaluable resource must remain within the watershed, to ensure its ongoing sustainability.
Only eight years after adoption of the Compact, member states and provinces voted to approve the first diversion request to a community located outside the basin. Sitting merely 20 miles from the shores of Lake Michigan, the city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, is located just outside the basin’s boundary. Since its founding in the 1830s, the city ironically had developed and thrived based on the plentiful water resources endowed by its inland aquifer. By the late nineteenth century, Waukesha became known as a premier Midwestern destination for spas and resorts, earning the nickname the “Saratoga of the West.” In the 1950s, the city even subsidized homeowners for watering their lawns to help preserve an ideal suburban aesthetic within the community.
However, by the end of the 20th century, rapid growth and poor management of the aquifer put a strain on the city’s available freshwater. As the aquifer diminished in size, it was impacted by increasing concentrations of radon, a naturally occurring carcinogen commonly found in soil. Tapping into Lake Michigan’s water became an existential need for the city, but the precedent that such a diversion would set posed a series of threats to the long term viability of the Compact. The city’s diversion petition navigated six years of legal challenges before finally receiving approval in 2016, but various challenges remain. To access Lake Michigan water, the city must construct a pipeline that is estimated at $286 million, a significant financial burden on municipal revenues. The approval of the city’s petition includes restrictions around consumption: Waukesha’s drawdowns must be net-zero, totaling 8.2 million gallons, all of which must be returned to the basin. Though the success of its diversion request is ultimately a positive development for the city, the accompanying costs and restrictions are a threat to long-term growth, particularly when compared to other scenarios where the local aquifer had been more sustainably managed.
Unfortunately, similar stories to Waukesha’s have begun to emerge throughout the Midwest. In the Chicago metro region, the collar county communities have experienced rapid growth over the past two decades. These communities are also dependent on inland aquifers, which increasingly are under greater strain. The city of Joliet, Illinois, which doubled its population and saw expansive development between 1990 and 2010, is expected to fully exhaust its aquifer by 2030. To sustain its population of nearly 150,000 and continue future growth, the city must instead turn to Lake Michigan, the Kankakee River or the Illinois River as a new source of drinking water. Each option poses varying risks financially and environmentally. As was demonstrated by the water crisis that began in 2014 in Flint, Michigan, switching municipal sources of drinking water can be disastrous and costly if the proper adjustments to protocols and infrastructure have not been made.
As more Midwestern communities outside of the Great Lakes basin begin to petition for diversions, the burden placed on sustainable management of Great Lakes water will become clear, and as regions continue to urbanize and irrigation for agriculture continues to place demands on inland aquifers, the growth in demand for diversions from the basin could grow rapidly.
To stem a future of undue water burden, costs, and risks, undertaking policies and practices to better ensure the long term sustainability of their freshwater resources is essential. Through work at Delta Institute, I have worked with local partners and organizations on various efforts that advance sustainable watershed management in the basin. Though these efforts and tools have been largely focused on storm water management and water quality, they will be essential in also ensuring freshwater conservation, as it becomes a more pressing need.
Regional Watershed Planning & Management
Building regional partnerships around watershed planning and management is a critical step towards identifying the existing conditions and modeling the impact of various policies and projects on addressing water scarcity and quality. These partnerships oftentimes include state, federal and local agencies but also can involve recreation and wildlife enthusiasts, as well as other organizations and institutions that are concerned with the environment. Delta Institute has collaborated and participated in various regional watershed partnerships throughout the Midwest. Watershed partnerships represent a wonderful collaboration space for identifying impact projects, policies, and programs in communities, whether the issues revolve around water conservation or regional flooding.
Infiltration through Green Infrastructure
Infiltration is a common strategy for storm water management. It focuses on absorbing water on site (versus moving water off-site) by increasing the permeability of surfaces through green infrastructure techniques like rain gardens, bioswales, green roofs, constructed wetlands and permeable pavement. With its emphasis on absorption, green infrastructure techniques also stand as effective methods for replenishing aquifers. Over the past decade, Delta Institute has worked with communities throughout the Midwest on overcoming the practical barriers for implementing green infrastructure. The institute has published a “Green Infrastructure Designs Guide,” which provides communities with templates and decision-making tools for planning and implementing green infrastructure and has worked with municipalities in Northwest Indiana, like Michigan City, Hobart and Gary on implementing green infrastructure projects that reduce flooding, improve water quality and advance infiltration in the basin. These projects will add in total over 38 million gallons of additional storm water retention capacity within the basin, all of which replenishes the groundwater.
Smart Growth & Sustainable Land Use Practices
Generally speaking, denser development requires less infrastructure, encourages greater efficiency around consumption, as well as efficiency around the design of development. Delta has worked with municipalities and agencies throughout the Midwest on Sustainability Plans (Lake County, Northbrook), Green Infrastructure Plans (Gary, Michigan City), and Climate Mitigation Plans (South Bend), which focus on the municipal ordinances, public programs, policies and infrastructure projects that can be developed by cities and towns to encourage resource conservation and reduce consumption. As with any public policy goals, planning is always a critical step in prioritizing solutions.
Water Infrastructure Funding & Finance
Ultimately, the extent of the funding currently available for water infrastructure from public agencies on the state, federal and local level is not adequate, and as with other forms of infrastructure in this country, an increase in funding for water infrastructure is greatly needed, whether from local sources like drainage fees or from federal grant programs. Innovative finance solutions are also an essential component of infrastructure finance in the 21st century. Techniques like private incentive programs, storm water credit trading and other forms of public private partnerships could be as actively leveraged for implementing water conservation infrastructure as they have been for delivering green storm water infrastructure. As in any market, scarcity represents an opportunity to meet demand by capturing and delivering value.
As a region, we have the human capital, regulatory tools, financial resources and institutional capacity to plan, invest and implement solutions that preserve freshwater resources in the Great Lakes for future generations, and while the capacity to tackle this issue directly varies from community to community, if the issue is effectively prioritized and strong partnerships can be forged between government, the private sector, non-profits, and citizens, then the sustainable management of this precious resource can be achieved even with the challenges that growth and climate change will bring.