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FLOW Staff to Issue Public Statement at Governor’s Energy Forum in Traverse City

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FLOW Staff to Issue Public Statement at Governor’s Energy Forum in Traverse City

Michigan’s Energy Plan Needs to Bring Water to the Center of the Conversation

For Immediate Release

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Governor Rick Snyder’s “Readying Michigan to Make Good Energy Decisions” Public Forum tour makes its seventh and final stop in Traverse City on Monday April 22, 2013. FLOW, a Traverse City-based nonprofit water policy and education center, has prepared written comments and will made public statements during next week’s forum that highlight the water-energy nexus as an integral part of charting Michigan’s energy future plans. Once water is elevated and integrated into the energy debate, the case for prioritizing renewable energies becomes clear. FLOW is a proponent for establishing and applying principles that unify and protect the integrity of the water cycle that flows through the “nexus” between energy production, water management, and climate change.

“Michigan faces a watershed moment and opportunity to chart a new cleaner energy course that is good for jobs, good for the environment, good for energy affordability, and good for the water,” says FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. Energy production, particularly of non-renewable sources, depends heavily on water for resource extraction, refining and processing, transportation, and electric power generation. The International Energy Agency projects that the amount of water consumed for energy production will double by 2035. FLOW urges Michigan energy policy-makers to wean Michigan off water-intensive energy sources, such as coal-fired power plants and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. “The big issue with fracking is the water, both in sheer quantity (e.g., 300 million gallons to frack 13 wells in Kalkaska County) and in safe disposal of chemical-laden and often toxic wastewater that will never return to our hydrologic cycle,” remarks Kirkwood.

In addition to water consumption for energy generation, climate change is a major issue to address in the water-energy nexus, according to Attorney and FLOW Chair Jim Olson. “What we want the Governor’s office and our state’s decision-makers to realize is that Michigan’s current energy plan is much more expensive when the costs of climate change impacts on water resources are accounted for. Our dependence on fossil fuels is the leading cause of climate change—the largest diversion of water from the Great Lakes—and the principle reason for current low water levels,” says Olson. Historic low water levels are costing taxpayers up to $21 million for emergency dredging this year. Super-storms, drought, increased evaporation, heavy precipitation, and precipitously falling water levels are all strong indicators that our fossil fuel and carbon-rich lifestyle and diet is no longer sustainable to assure the integrity and health of the waters of the Great Lakes.

The bottom line is that expanding Michigan’s renewable energy portfolio makes good sense because it good for jobs, good for the environment, good for energy affordability, and good for the water.

For more information: Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director, FLOW

Lake Michigan Water Levels – Climate Change is Taking Our Water

by Elizabeth Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director and Bob Otwell, FLOW Board of Directors Treasurer

February 24, 2013
Traverse City Record-Eagle – The Forum
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The exposed shoreline along Lake Michigan is creating a local buzz as residents watch this beautiful lake recede. Levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are at historic lows and 2012 marked the fourteenth consecutive year of below average water levels.

Three key factors that influence water levels are: (1) precipitation, (2) evaporation, and (3) runoff from land. Since 1950, precipitation has held relatively steady at 32 inches per year. Evaporation, however, has changed dramatically. A look at data from NOAA between 1950 and the mid-1980s reveals that total evaporation over the two lakes averaged 24 inches per year.

In the last decade, though, the average annual evaporation has increased by 25 percent to 30 inches. Warmer water temperatures, coupled with less ice cover during the winter have contributed to increased evaporation rates, which in turn lead to continued lowering of lake levels. By altering the hydrologic cycle of precipitation, evaporation, and runoff, climate change is directly affecting Lake Michigan.

Other factors also have affected lake levels, including (1) the historic diversion of water out of Lake Michigan at Chicago to flush sewage down the Mississippi River, and (2) the dredging of the St. Clair River, which lowered the outlet of Lake Huron. But all in all, climate change remains the greatest diversion out of these lakes.

With this issue of record-low water levels front and center on everyone’s minds, it provides a timely opportunity to develop holistic policy solutions to prevent further impairment and diversions. The Great Lakes are a shared public “commons” that can be protected by applying an overarching legal framework called the public trust doctrine. Public trust solutions equitably balance protected public water uses including navigation, commerce, fishing, drinking water and swimming.

This ancient legal doctrine is deeply rooted in our history. Two thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Justinian established water as a commons held in trust for its citizens. In 1215, British Courts also ruled that the water was held in trust, and that the Crown could not interfere with the public’s right to fish, boat, or swim. In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Great Lakes to be held in public trust for all to enjoy. This trust means that government and citizens have a duty to pass on the integrity of these waters to future generations.

If we look at the lakes under the public trust lens, the Chicago diversion does not meet the standard because it takes water out of the watershed. Moreover, modern wastewater treatment has eclipsed the need to divert water to the Mississippi. As observed over the past decade, impacts to the lake levels from climate change are real and growing. We must continue to work locally, nationally, and internationally to reduce fossil fuel use, and demand action from our government leaders. Other parts of the country are experiencing loss of life and billion dollar impacts from tornados and hurricanes attributed to our changing climate. In the Great Lakes basin, what will our reality be?

About the authors: Liz Kirkwood is Executive Director of For Love Of Water.(FLOW), a Traverse Cty non-profit policy institute whose mission is to recognize the Great Lakes as a commons held in public trust for the benefit of current and future generations. She is a former environmental attorney. Bob Otwell is a FLOW Board Member and founder of Otwell Mawby, P.C, a Traverse City engineering consulting firm. He is the former Executive Director of TART Trails, Inc.

Water Levels and Flows

by Jim Nies, FLOW’s Wisconsin Coordinator

Of all the problems facing the Great Lakes, loss of water is perhaps the most serious. The water is not, as many believe, a renewable resource; rather it is a gift of the glaciers, with only one percent replaced annually.

The water levels on Lakes Ontario and Erie, while down, seem to have been behaving normally over the past decade. Lake Superior has been trending downward and has been below the long-term average since 2005. Michigan and Huron – which are really one body of water and the only unregulated Great Lakes — have experienced great loss.

2012 marks the fourteenth year of unprecedented sustained low water, and by winter of 2013 the water level of Michigan/Huron may reach the lowest level in recorded history. Throughout history, the water levels of the Lakes have followed cyclical patterns. At about the turn of the century the pattern broke down, at least in Superior and Michigan/Huron, and while declines have continued, the normal, historic rebounds, have not.

The big Michigan/Huron drop started after July, 1997, when the level was at 581.40 feet, above average, but well below the record of 582.42. In October of 1998 the level dropped below the long-term average, and it has remained there ever since, at times falling below 576.5 feet. Over the past fourteen years Michigan/Huron has experienced a vertical decline of nearly 5 feet. The effects in bays and channels, and around much of the shoreline have been dramatic.

It is possible that North America experienced a climatic tipping point right about the turn of the century. According to the 2003 Union of Concerned Scientists/ Ecological Society of America report, very abrupt climate changes are not uncommon, and when they occur “human and natural systems have difficulty adapting.” The report suggests that future declines in water levels are likely.

What is certain is that the water in the Lakes is much warmer than it has ever been, there is about 70% less ice cover in winter, and evaporation is greater. Precipitation patterns have altered, with drought more common in the north central part of the continent. A panel of climate scientists report in the July 29, 2012 Nature Geoscience that “towards the latter half of the 21st century the precipitation regime associated with the turn of the century drought will represent an outlier of extreme wetness. These long-term trends are consistent with a 21st century “megadrought.”

Some forecasts indicate increased precipitation events such as the Duluth flood of summer 2012. This “flashiness” may counterbalance drought to some degree, but most forecasts anticipate continued water level decline. The IJC’s Upper Great Lakes Study board reports that even with increased flashiness and extreme storm events, there is an 85% likelihood of increased dryness and continuing water decline.

Dramatic and powerful as climate change appears to be, it is not, however, the greatest cause of the low level in Michigan/Huron. That honor goes to dredging, diversion, and extraction.

The largest unnecessary drain of Michigan/Huron water is the St. Clair River, where at Port Huron, water flows out of Lake Huron and through the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers into Lake Erie. Before European settlement, the St. Clair was a relatively slow-moving stream of shallows and meanders and with sandbars extending out into the Lake.

Dredging efforts date back to 1852 on the St. Clair River and to 1872 on the Detroit River, when specific obstacles to navigation were removed. Major dredging efforts to facilitate commercial navigation throughout the St. Clair/Detroit River system occurred from 1910-1923 (the 22-foot project), from 1933-1936 (the 25-foot project) and from 1958-1962 (the 27-foot project). Significant sand and gravel dredging has also taken place. Both the Canadian and U.S. governments committed to the building of compensating structures as a precondition to dredging of the St. Clair River in the 50s and 60s, but this was never done.

The dredging from in the 1910’s, 20’s, 30’s and 60’s caused a water level drop of about 16 inches. The later dredgings dropped the level more. An engineering report prepared by W.F. Baird & Associates in 2005 says that 40 years of erosion in the St. Clair may have dropped the level by an additional foot or more. Thus, engineering work and erosion have combined to lower the Lakes by more that three feet, and currently, something like 121 billion gallons a day drains out of Huron/Michigan down the St. Clair, much of it unnecessary for navigation or any other purpose.

The Chicago diversion is a second significant cause of reduced water levels. The canal built in the early 20th century reversed the flow of the Chicago River in order to flush sewage down the Mississippi. Today approximately 2.1 billion gallons a day of drinkable fresh water is used for this purpose, and the level of the Lakes has been further reduced.

Other factors contributing to declining water include:

  • high capacity wells,
  • water mining and the bottling of drinking water,
  • consumptive uses, in which about 2 billions gallons are “consumed” every day (not returned to the watershed) for things like grain, grapes, wine, beer, milk, fruits, vegetables and livestock.

According to David Dempsey, “the remorseless tapping of groundwater resources to support agriculture and industry is drying up aquifers alarmingly fast,” and drying aquifers fail to recharge the Great Lakes, and in fact can contribute to drawing them down. (Dave Dempsey, On the Brink, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2004)

Continued water loss in Lakes Huron-Michigan will have profound consequences for the millions of people who rely upon them. Billions of dollars are at risk through declining property values, reduced fishing opportunities, inaccessible marinas, lower tourism, smaller shipping revenues and less hydro power. Wetlands and aquatic ecosystems face annihilation. Traditional lifestyles will certainly be lost. Even the supply of drinking water relied upon by millions of Canadians and Americans may be threatened.

Low levels also concentrate pollution, increase the likelihood of bacterial contamination and algal blooms, and generally exacerbate the suite of problems facing the lakes.

Having been unequivocally altered by human activity, the Great Lakes now need unstinting human care—the best science and the best engineering applied across the entire basin, with the interests of everyone carefully considered—to assist nature regain its natural balance.

Examples of what can happen to great bodies of water that do not get the necessary care include the Aral Sea, formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world which has lost 75% of its surface area and 90 percent of its volume; and Lake Chad, once the world’s sixth largest lake and the water supply of 30 million people which has shrunk by 90 per cent and will likely disappear altogether by 2030.

These Young People are Fighting for Water Justice and Building Community in Michigan and Ohio

Matt Harmon is FLOW’s Milliken intern for communications

Photos courtesy of We the People of Detroit

By Matt Harmon

Gathered in the gymnasium of the Flint Development Center, young representatives from the community organizations We the People of Detroit, the McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Lab, and the Junction Coalition of Toledo spoke to an enraptured caucus on August 12 on their respective organizations, their summers advocating for water and environmental justice, and what adults can do to support them and their efforts.

To say these young people have had busy summers is an understatement. We the People of Detroit representatives Jatonah and Brooke participated in the We the Youth Water Testing Project. Over the course of eight weeks, Jatonah and Brooke went door-to-door and collected water samples in two Detroit neighborhoods to test the residents’ water for lead. While the city maintains the water itself is safe for drinking, officials acknowledge the fact that corrosion in water service lines and in household plumbing can result in elevated lead levels.

According to research from Bridge Michigan, Wayne County has 3,025 service lines and expects to replace 100% of them due to their being either lead pipes or galvanized steel service lines that are, or once were connected, to a lead line. A state rule change in 2018 following the Flint Water Crisis has given counties 20 years to replace these lines, but local municipalities are already requesting extensions, so the work Jatonah and Brooke were doing this summer was of the utmost importance.

“I was discussing with one of my teachers, and they were really surprised. They didn’t even know Detroit was dealing with a lead problem and especially that there were youth all over Michigan and in Toledo working against this problem,” Jatonah said.

Addison, Ben W., and Ben S. with the Flint Water Lab are part of this team of young people working to detect and remove lead in Michigan’s drinking water. The McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Lab is the first community-based laboratory of its kind in the world. It is run completely by Flint residents, including high school and college students, and provides free water testing for lead and other metals, while also connecting residents to social services and keeping the City of Flint accountable for the changes it says it is going to make.

Ben W. started working in the Water Lab in March. As a chemistry student at the University of Michigan—Flint, he said his time at the Lab was valuable in getting hands-on experience in this setting and helping the community.

“It was a really great opportunity for me to be able to not only learn all of these instruments and know how to use the actual science of testing water in real life, but it also gave me this experience of doing it for the community, which I thought was really cool … It gives people like us, and people within the community itself, the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of water testing and the ability to learn the science behind it, and that’s what I really love,” said Ben W.

When Ben W. refers to working with the community, Joel and Aleyah at Junction Coalition knew all about that from their own experiences gained this summer. Junction Coalition was founded with the purpose of creating a better life for residents and business owners in the Junction neighborhood of Toledo. The organization works to build healthy relationships between local, state, and the federal government and its citizens.

Joel works at Junction Coalition as a gardener at their community garden on Bloom Street, “Bloom on Bloom,” as they call it. As food justice and water justice are inextricably linked—you need clean water to produce clean crops after all—Joel said his role transcends gardening and is really about community building.

“One of Junction Coalition’s main pillars is environmental justice. Our main goal is to provide a voice for that neighborhood. Part of that is taking care, including cutting grass or planting flowers around neighborhoods or even taking care of the houses … Part of my job besides gardening is to make sure we’ve got people in those houses and they look nice, so we do painting and carpeting and all that, mostly to show that the people in this neighborhood take care of its neighborhood. That way, it gives us more of an incentive to go to the city and ask for something we might need from them,” said Joel.

Through the program, Aleyah noted she was able to participate in the community building Joel mentioned while also engaging in her own professional development.

“With the Junction, we are helping the community and learning at the same time. For instance, they’ll have people come in and talk to us about college to get us ready for our education. Yesterday, a lady came in, and she talked to us about our taxes because that’s something we’re gonna have to know how to do when we get older,” Aleyah said.

As for the collaboration across organizations, all of the youth representatives were in agreement that their missions were intertwined. From experiences with learning how to respond to common excuses for why someone doesn’t want their water tested to lessons on how to build community through their work, each member of the team shared stories that showed their aligned activities.

“We all have the same goal, and we’re working towards it together—and things just fall into place when you’re trying to get the same thing done,” said Ben S.

It was clear from the audience’s questions and comments that the older members of the caucus had great respect for the young people and what they were accomplishing through their respective summer programs.

“It’s heartwarming to see young people who are providing service to the community, that there are still a lot of young people who care about the community and care about the safety of community and feel that have something to offer, so thank all of you for what you’ve done and what you’re doing,” said an adult audience member before a rapturous applause.

Eventually, the conversation moved into what the young people want adults to keep in mind and do to support the youth’s own activism and work. Brooke said she wishes adults would take a moment to envision a life beyond the one they’re currently living, where the problems they’re being faced with, but might not know about, no longer exist.

“I feel like not enough adults are getting the right amount of knowledge on the situation, and they’ve been living in these areas for years, and because they aren’t aware of this, they feel like nothing’s wrong. I had one person say, ‘I’ve been living here for years. It’s fine.’ But it’s not fine,” said Brooke.

“Another thing that adults could do is spread awareness and ask the youth, because even though we’re young, we have a lot experience with issues that people from the ‘90s, people from the ‘70s, people from the ‘80s haven’t really dealt with—so we could just communicate because there’s things you know that we don’t know, and that we know that you don’t know. It’s conversing,” said Jatonah.

Addison recognized the urgency of issues like water justice and said adults need to take responsibility for their inaction and empower youth to make the necessary changes to our system.

“For a long time, a lot of environmental issues have been a thing where it’s, ‘Oh, the next generation can deal with this. It won’t affect us.’ But it seems like a lot of people in our generation are realizing, ‘We can’t wait because it’s affecting us now.’ We need to be the ones to make the change, because if we kick it down the road any longer, there’s no coming back,” said Addison.