Government Must Protect the Great Lakes, our Greatest Source of Natural Capital

Report author Skip Pruss

By Skip Pruss

This article is excerpted from the second of four policy briefs by former FLOW board chair, and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, Skip Pruss that make the economic case for government’s role in protecting the environment.

The second policy brief, “Resetting Expectations: The Value of Natural Systems and Government’s Role in Protecting Water,” is available here to read or download as an executive summary or full report. FLOW will unveil the last two briefs in the coming months. (Pruss’ first report in the series also is available here in executive summary and in full.)

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Michigan lies at the heart of the Great Lakes, the largest fresh surface water system in the world. Harboring 95 percent of all fresh surface water in United States and 84 percent of all fresh surface water in North America, the Lakes are an enormous source of natural capital, providing direct health, economic, environmental, and ecological services to 40 million people. The Great Lakes system is a magnificent natural endowment. Sculpted by ancient retreating glaciers that left the largest interconnected body of fresh surface water in the world, the Great Lakes are truly globally unique.

We in Michigan are water rich. The Great Lakes support a $6 trillion regional economy. Water is our most valuable source of natural capital, bestowing billions of dollars in ecological services by providing fresh, potable water for consumption, recreation, agriculture, and industry. Freshwater aquatic ecosystems — our lakes, streams, rivers, groundwater and wetlands — provide drinking water, produce fish, nourish unique biological niches at the land and water interface, and provide diverse recreational opportunities. Wetlands are prolific biological nurseries harboring birds, insects, waterfowl, and aquatic organisms throughout the food chain, while purifying water, storing stormwater, recharging aquifers, and buffering nutrients — essential services that are largely unknown and unappreciated. Great Lakes fisheries alone provide more than $7 billion in annual economic benefits and support more than 75,000 jobs.

Photo: Great Lakes fisheries alone provide more than $7 billion in annual economic benefits and support more than 75,000 jobs.

With our water wealth comes special obligations of stewardship. The Great Lakes and their tributary rivers and streams belong to the public and are held in a public trust. Government, as trustee, has the responsibility to protect the trust waters from impairment and cannot allow diminishment of water quantity or water quality. Our people, our businesses, and our economy depend on the health and viability of our Great Lakes, and others less gifted by geography will set their sights on the Great Lakes. There will soon come a time when discussions about human rights in water, growing water scarcity, and the need for a more “equitable” distribution of Great Lakes’ water wealth will elevate in Congress and state legislatures.

A recent study conducted under the Resources Planning Act, a federal law requiring periodic resource assessments on forest lands and rangelands, indicates that of the 204 water basins in the United States, 145 basins will show decreases in yield over the coming decades and nearly half may experience monthly water shortages. While climate change is projected to increase precipitation in some northern regions of the United States, increased frequency of droughts will result in reduced river flows, less reservoir capacity, and decreases in soil moisture. Globally, the situation is much worse. The United Nations reports that today “over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, and about 4 billion people experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year.”

Our abundant water resources will increasingly weigh to Michigan’s competitive advantage, but, more likely than not, Michigan will face future challenges from states that will be stressed by inadequate water supplies and who will look to our region with the belief and expectation that our water resources need to serve a larger geography. Our water wealth will be certain to attract a broad universe of water-dependent agricultural, commercial, and industrial private interests as well. At the same time, the chasm between the water rich and the water poor will grow. Great Lakes freshwater resources and the vital services they provide will only increase in value in a future where national and international water supplies become more stressed and attenuated.

Government, as the fiduciary charged with the protection of public trust resources, must use the tools and resources it has in terms of laws, regulations, and best practices to conserve and protect our water as a public good. Greater public understanding of the vital services water resources provide would empower citizens to participate more effectively in the political process and demand that policymakers and legislators take active measures to protect water. Intelligent, sensible water management and conservation practices and effective application of laws and regulations on the part of government to protect the waters upon which we all depend are imperative. Ultimately, our legal and moral authority to resist appropriation of our water wealth will be a function of how adept and effective we are as Great Lakes stewards in the conservation and protection of our waters.

And we must learn from our mistakes.

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