I was introduced to FLOW through a friend of LEco, Mae Stier, as she chose them as the recipient of special proceeds of the Letters to Lake Michigan Poem Shirt. After chatting with Lauren recently, I was so excited to have her kickoff our Earth Month content as an expert in all things Great Lakes conservation. Please read, find what inspires you, and take action!
Spring is finally upon us, but if you’re in the Midwest (like me), chances are you’re watching the snow fall outside your window right now. In my heart, summer lake days may seem woefully far away, but the Great Lakes are never far from my mind. As we approach Earth Day, it’s that time of year when our collective thoughts turn to the health of our environment. We renew our commitment to steward our land and water. We seek new ways to protect the places we love. For those of us who are lucky to call the Great Lakes home, Earth Day serves as a reminder that living near 20% of the world’s fresh surface water also comes with a great responsibility. If you love the Great Lakes, you likely know that they are facing many pressures. Our fresh waters remain at risk, and it’s up to all of us to be guardians of this magnificent resource. Read on for some of the most pressing challenges to our beloved lakes, and actions that you can take today to help protect them forever.
Climate change is undoubtedly one of the greatest threats to our global environment. While we are fortunate to have an abundance of freshwater in the Great Lakes Basin, we are not exempt from the effects of a warming climate. In March 2019, a report commissioned by Environmental Law and Policy Center found that climate change is warming the Great Lakes region faster than the U.S. average. This trend has grave implications for our fresh waters, including increased algal blooms, severe weather events, and loss of habitat for aquatic species. However, with more than 35 million people residing in the Great Lakes Basin, small changes in our daily routines can add up to big collective impacts when it comes to offsetting our carbon and freshwater footprint. Here are just a few ways you can do your part:
Commit to walking or biking at least one day a week. If distance or weather does not permit, choose public transportation or carpool with friends and coworkers.
Invest in green technology. This can be as simple as switching to energy efficient light bulbs or even more impactful by purchasing an electric car. This not only decreases greenhouse gas emissions, but reduces your total energy consumption, which can often require intensive amounts of freshwater resources to produce.
Contact your elected officials: In 2019, four new governors took office in the Great Lakes region, and some, like Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer, made commitments during their campaigns to protect our Great Lakes. The midterm elections may be over, but it’s important that our newly elected representatives continue to hear from their constituents. Write or call to let them know your concerns about climate change impacts, and encourage them to vote for green initiatives.
Algal blooms have become an increasingly common occurrence in the Great Lakes, even in Lake Superior, which is typically too cold and nutrient poor to produce algae. Higher temperatures due to climate change are playing their part to exacerbate algal blooms. However, one of the most serious offenders is excessive nutrient inputs from human activities (also known as cultural eutrophication). Residents of Lake Erie know these challenges all too well. In 2014, toxic algal blooms due to agricultural runoff lead to three days of water shutoffs for the city of Toledo. If you own shoreline property, you can do your part to prevent algal blooms by limiting application of fertilizers, and maintaining native plants as a shoreline buffer.
Did you know that up to 42% of Great Lakes waters originated as groundwater? In fact, the volume of groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin is roughly equivalent to the volume of water in Lake Huron. Because this resource is out of sight and out of mind, it has faced serious degradation in recent history. FLOW’s senior policy analysis, Dave Dempsey, recently authored a report, The Sixth Great Lake: The Emergency Threatening Michigan’s Overlooked Groundwater Resource, to spark regional conversations and advance protective policies here in Michigan, where nearly half of residents rely on groundwater for their drinking water. You can help care for our groundwater resources by reducing the application of fertilizers and other chemicals on your lawn (or better yet, replacing grass with rain gardens!) and maintaining your septic system through regular inspections.
In a study completed by the U.S. Geological Survey, analyzing 107 samples from 29 tributary rivers of the Great Lakes, researchers found microplastics in every sample. You read that correctly --all of them.These 29 waterways collectively make up a fifth of the flows entering our Great Lakes. And if that’s not enough cause for alarm, a study from the University of Minnesota sampled 12 Great Lakes beers and you guessed it – all 12 had microplastics too. The best way to prevent microplastics is eliminating plastic at the source through regulation and consumer action. Because of consumer education and action, there are plenty of great alternatives to using single-use plastics. Last year, FLOW launched our Get Off the Bottle Campaign, calling on people to stop purchasing single-use plastic water bottles. Not only is bottled water up to 2,000 times more expensive than tap water, but up to 70% of single-use plastic water bottles will ultimately be landfilled. Check out this Plastic-Free Guide with 100 ways to eliminate plastic from your daily routine and prevent plastic waste from entering our Great Lakes.
“All the water that will ever be is, right now.” In just ten words a few decades ago, National Geographic a clearly and succinctly summed up the fragile nature of our most precious resource. Given that only 3 percent of the Earth’s water is fresh, and most of that is in the form of glaciers, this throws into sharp relief the finite nature of our fresh water.
The Great Lakes Compact, a legal framework signed by eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces, arose out of concerns regarding the export of water outside of the Great Lakes Basin, banning or severely restricting water exports in vessels, trucks, rail tankers, pipelines, canals, aqueducts, and other infrastructure. In the 10 years since its enactment, the test cases of Waukesha and Racine/Foxconn involving water diversions for straddling communities and counties exceptions have exposed weaknesses in the compact and challenged its durability. These diversions must be approved by all eight Great Lakes state governors, so it is important that Great Lakes Basin citizens understand the ramifications of diversion approvals and call on their elected officials to exercise sound judgment when reviewing applications that could set dangerous precedents.
Despite these challenges, I remain optimistic for the future of our Great Lakes. Just this week, Chicago passed a resolution committing to 100 percent clean energy by 2040, making it the largest U.S. city to date to make this commitment. I am in awe of the number of students who are taking a stand at youth climate strikes across the globe. And I am hopeful, because of you – those of you who took the time to read this blog. My work is inspired by the growing movement of educated and empowered citizens who care so deeply for our Great Lakes. Our challenges might be great, but I know that our commitment to stewardship as guardians is greater.
Lauren Hucek is a program coordinator at FLOW (For Love of Water), in Traverse City, Michigan. FLOW is a Great Lakes water law and policy center dedicated to protecting the common waters of the Great Lakes Basin and ensuring access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water for all. At the heart of its mission, FLOW educates and empowers citizens and leaders to know and use their rights under the public trust doctrine – with the government as trustee of our shared resources and citizens as beneficiaries – to solve systemic threats facing our Great Lakes today and tomorrow.FLOW believes the enduring idea of the commons and legal principles of the public trust can offer unifying, adaptive solutions to address basin-wide threats,such asincreased water conflicts, pollution, diversions, and climate change impacts.