Water sustains life. Yet, as we saw recently with Hurricane Sandy on the east coast, and major flood events closer to home in recent years, water can sometimes be dangerous and even life-threatening.
As we celebrate World Water Day on March 22nd and think about the many benefits we derive from freshwater here in Michigan, it’s also timely to develop perspective on natural events driven by extreme weather and a changing climate. How do we assure that nature’s way of collecting, storing and delivering the water we need also protects our communities, homes, businesses and food production from the devastating impacts of major storms and floods? How do we strike the right balance with nature?
Clearly, we have and will rely upon engineering and technology to provide some of the answers. But as we look for solutions, a good place to start is with nature itself.
Consider the Great Lakes, which contain 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. Our “natural infrastructure,” including wetlands, floodplains, forests and other healthy native habitats, can serve as a first line of defense to protect people and property from the damages of water while at the same time holding it in storage for our use. For example, forests and floodplains absorb, slow and contain water. Nature designed them that way, yet in too many places we have eliminated the services they provide. An acre of healthy wetland can store up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Protecting and restoring our natural infrastructure will not stop rivers from flooding or fully protect us from every severe storm. Such actions will, however, help reduce the risks to the people living along rivers, lakes, flood-prone lowlands and coasts who are the most exposed.
And protection from storms and floods is just one of the many benefits we get from making smart, cost-effective investments in natural infrastructure. Healthy lands and waters are the backbone of agriculture, commercial fishing, forestry and outdoor recreation industries. They support millions of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity in Michigan, throughout the Great Lakes region and nationwide.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has funded many projects since 2009 that are helping restore natural infrastructure, notably coastal wetlands, watersheds and the restoration of streams and rivers. In Michigan, GLRI funding is fortifying our natural infrastructure by restoring critical coastal wetlands, dune shoreline and degraded habitat around the state as well as reducing aquatic invasive species that cost our state millions in removal and management expenses to private landowners and businesses.
We are capable of making wise, prudent, long-term investments. GLRI and other programs that invest in natural infrastructure are also an investment in people—in our safety, our health and our livelihoods. Keeping these programs strong protects the lands and waters we need for life.
Helen Taylor is the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Michigan and Great Lakes Commissioner. She has spent more than 25 years working on Great Lakes protection and conservation, and serves on the recently formed Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality’s Water Use Advisory Council.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.