Rick Haglund: Can Michigan grow its ‘blue economy’ while facing fallout from climate change?

August 2, 2021 8:42 am

Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula | Susan J. Demas

A 2015 study exploring Michigan’s “blue economy” forecast a prosperous future in which Michigan’s enormous water resources would serve as the catalyst for thousands of high-paying new jobs as the state becomes the world’s “freshwater innovation capital.”

“One hundred years after launching the industrial revolution, we look to a new green-blue revolution consisting of sustainable communities, products and enterprises,” the 119-page report breathlessly stated.

And then came the 2016 Flint water crisis. The drinking water in this struggling city of 96,000 people became contaminated with lead after the state switched Flint’s water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in a cost-saving move.

Suddenly, Michigan became known to the world, not for cradling four of the five Great Lakes that contain 20% of the world’s fresh surface water, but for failing to provide safe drinking water to its most vulnerable residents.

“It was a reminder that just as we were making significant headway, we had to say, ‘Wait a minute, we need to go back to basics to make sure the resource we have in abundance is not poisoning us,’” said Michigan Economic Center Director John Austin, who authored the study with Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University’s Annis Water Resources Institute.

“It took the luster off this shiny blue economy,” Austin said.

The big money is when your community becomes a choice location for talent that wants to live there.

– Michigan Economic Center Director John Austin

Meanwhile, Detroit was in the midst of shutting off water to tens of thousands poor city residents who couldn’t afford to pay for this essential element of life, a move the American Civil Liberties Union called “the largest residential water shutoff in U.S. history.”

And a 2018 study by Michigan Technological University found that a major spill from the controversial Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac could pollute large sections of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, and desecrate 400 miles of shoreline.

While many western states struggle with a lack of water, Michigan has recently been battling too much of it. High lake levels, which have receded this year, last summer plunged homes into Lake Michigan and gobbled up beaches, hurting tourism.

A cascading series of severe rainstorms this summer has repeatedly flooded basements and freeways in metro Detroit, and fouled beaches across the state. A major storm in June pushed billions of gallons of sewage from overstressed sewer systems into Michigan waterways, according to a Detroit News analysis.

But growing Michigan’s blue economy could help the state thrive as a global water resource center at a time when water is an increasingly precious resource. 

Austin’s study noted that Michigan has nine water research centers at state universities conducting hundreds of millions of dollars in water-related research. His report also found there were nearly 140,000 people working at water technology products and services firms in 2015.

Those segments could expand rapidly as water, or the lack of it, becomes a greater threat to communities, states and countries.

The very existence of Chicago, for instance, is being threatened by violent storms and steep fluctuations in Lake Michigan levels that scientists say are being speeded by climate change.

“Everybody is trying to make their infrastructure more resilient to these extreme water events,” Austin said.

Communities can also become more attractive to new residents and workers, which slow-growing Michigan urgently needs, by enhancing their waterfronts.

High water levels in Lake Michigan in Manistique, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Grand Rapids, recognized as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, is attempting to restore the thundering, whitewater rapids of the Grand River, which supporters say will bring “economic, environmental and cultural excitement” back to the river as it slices though the city’s downtown.

The transition of Detroit’s riverfront from a largely vacant vestige of the city’s industrial past to a vibrant public gathering space has been cited as an important element of the city’s economic recovery from its historic 2013 bankruptcy.

While communities that spruce up their lake and riverfronts can invite more tourists, “the big money is when your community becomes a choice location for talent that wants to live there,” Austin said.

Some experts think Michigan could become a “climate refuge” for people fleeing from other parts of the country experiencing more frequent wildfires, hotter summers, stronger hurricanes and dwindling drinking water reserves.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead, reservoirs that provide water to 40 million people in the West, are at record lows in what scientists are calling a “megadrought.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission wants to implement a rule that would require publicly held corporations to disclose climate-change business risks to their investors.

Austin said manufacturers could find it difficult to insure proposed new factories where future water supplies are uncertain. That could benefit water-rich Michigan’s manufacturing sector.

A new state study outlines the importance of water to the state’s fortunes. Hundreds of thousands of state jobs, ranging from resort hotel clerks to environmental scientists are connected to Michigan’s blue economy, it said.

“In some form or another, much of the Michigan economy can be tied to the water, making the quality of water in the state crucial to economic health,” according to the study from the state Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives.

The challenge for Michigan is to grow its blue economy while being good stewards of the state’s most important natural resource.


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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.