Opinion: Michigan should become global freshwater capital

Dave Dempsey and John Hartig
In 2001, the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge was established 20 miles south of Detroit, with 6,000 acres of marshes, shoals, islands and waterfront lands that are a critical habitat for many fish and wildlife species.

For a state whose destiny is so intertwined with clean freshwater, it's surprising how Michigan has lagged in treasuring and protecting this resource in the past. Thankfully this has changed, especially in southeast Michigan.

Today, we have an opportunity to put water at the center of our civic life and personal lives. We are the freshwater capital of the world — if we choose to be.

As recently as 50 years ago, the Rouge River caught fire, oil and toxic contaminants fouled many southeast Michigan waters, and habitat destruction almost wiped out such valuable water-dependent fish and wildlife like bald eagles and the lake sturgeon. This led to the designation of the St. Clair, Clinton, Raisin and Detroit rivers as pollution “hot spots".

Downtown Detroit, the Detroit River, Belle Isle and Windsor, Ontario are shown in this 1930 aerial photo.

That changed when a growing public outcry for water clean-up culminated in both state and federal laws, like the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act, and the 1972 Clean Water Act, which set pollution discharge limits for both industries and municipal wastewater treatment plants. Before long, visible cleanup progress was made. 

As water quality improved people started rediscovering water resources right in their backyard. And as the populations of bald eagles, walleye, and lake sturgeon rebounded, people returned to the Detroit River for recreation.

In the books we’ve recently authored, we lay out these historic improvements and their value to the regional economy. Conservatively, fishing, birding, boating, hunting, and greenways bring in tens of millions of dollars to our economy each year. But it’s also important to look ahead.

Containing 20% of the planet’s available surface freshwater, the Great Lakes by any measure are the hub of this resource. The Lakes’ unique size and features spur research, continued cleanup, improvements in public access, and world-class outdoor recreation.

Storm clouds pass over the Detroit River near Bishop Park in Wyandotte on Aug. 12.

All the ingredients are there for southeast Michigan to assume a pre-eminent role in supporting these developments and becoming the de facto freshwater capital of the world. 

This is much more than an honorary title. It could mean the dedication of public funding to promote a link between the region and higher education research and communication. It could means a commitment to innovative ways of preventing pollution and remediating legacy pollution.

Most of all, it could mean the development of a long-term vision and specific plans to capitalize on improvements in southeast Michigan to create tens of thousands of sustainable jobs.

Metropolitan Detroit was the epicenter of the fur trade era, an unparalleled leader of ship building for 100 years, the Silicon Valley of the industrial age and the unquestioned leader of the Arsenal of Democracy.

The region's unique history shows that Detroit is a city of innovation, resilience and leadership in responding to paradigm shifts. Detroit has the opportunity and ability to be a critical leader of sustainable use of water, to redefine itself again and to lead the nation and world down a more sustainable path. 

Dave Dempsey is a policy adviser for FLOW, a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to protecting Great Lakes waters. John Hartig serves as a visiting scholar at University of Windsor's Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and the Great Lakes science-policy adviser to the International Association for Great Lakes Research.