One of Michigan’s greatest resources is its abundance of water, but how can the state best leverage the Great Lakes to grow the economy?
Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute is undertaking a one-year study that will inventory how businesses, universities and local governments are utilizing the state’s vast water supply for economic gain.
The study is being funded by a $75,000 grant from the C.S. Mott Foundation, and AWRI will partner with John Austin from the Michigan Economic Center at Prima Civitas Foundation on the study.
“This project will allow us to inventory the blue economy initiatives throughout the state, and use that information to incentivize additional economic growth based on sustainable freshwater principles,” said Alan Steinman, AWRI director and principal investigator on the grant.
Steinman explained that previous research recognized that it would take $25 billion to restore the Great Lakes, but that restoration efforts had the potential to bring a return on investment of between $50 billion to $75 billion.
“That analysis helped justify Congress to approve the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, because they showed that investing in ecosystem restoration not only improves the ecosystem, but it actually helps improve the economy, as well,” he said. “And that was a pretty compelling argument.”
Steinman pointed out that local governments turned away from waterways due to heavy pollution, but in recent years are looking at how they can develop those areas to grow their cities or towns.
“Now, as we’ve cleaned up these environments, the water is actually a pretty compelling location,” he said. “The communities have now started restoring their waterfronts, using the water as an incentive. We’ve changed the way that we orient our community structure. So we want to inventory where all of this has taken place. We can point to Traverse City, Grand Haven, even Grand Rapids.”
Businesses with an eye toward water conservation also are seeing economic gain from their efforts, and Steinman said the study would look at how businesses are both finding ways to conserve water and also developing technologies around water.
“The reality is the H20 molecule is free; there is no charge for that,” he said. “What we pay for in our monthly utility bills, whether we are a private residence or a manufacturing entity, we are paying for the cost of pumping that water, the energy to pump that water out of the Great Lakes or from a deep aquifer and treating it.
“So the more that these large manufacturing operations can conserve and save water, they save on their energy bills, and that can be a huge cost. … Historically, we talked about white-collar jobs, and then with all the focus on sustainability, we talked about green-collar jobs. Now we are talking about blue-collar jobs.”
Finally, Steinman said that universities have been pouring resources into water research that could have substantial impacts on the economy.
“So what does that mean, what has been done, what is the potential investment and the potential return associated with that, as well,” he asked.
The inventory will help the state connect the value of water with the economy more directly and Steinman hopes it can be used to stimulate economic growth.
He also noted it would be important to think about how to balance utilizing water as an economic driver while also using it sustainably.
He said the state hopefully has learned from the great lumber barons of the past that what might look like an unlimited resource likely isn’t.
“Humans have a great ability to exploit resources, so we want to make sure we use the water to grow the economy but do it sustainably,” he said.
“Ultimately, the goal would be to figure out how we market water as a way to grow Michigan’s economy, and we would want to make sure that we are using water sustainably as part of those practices. We don’t want to go down the road of the forests of the 1870s.”
Steinman hopes this undertaking will be phase one of a multiphase project. He is also looking for partners who are invested in building a blue economy.