Protecting Michigan’s water resources

Michigan borders some of the world’s greatest fresh water resources. Protecting the water quality of these resources is the goal of projects throughout the state.

Michigan is fortunate to border and contain some of the world’s largest fresh water resources. The Great Lakes contain nearly 20 percent of the world’s and 90 percent of the United State’s fresh surface water supply. Michigan, which benefits by bordering four of the five Great Lakes, has more than 3,000 miles of shoreline. The state also has more than 36,000 miles of perennial streams and rivers and 11,000 inland lakes over 5 acres in size. These water resources provide the state’s residents and visitors with many recreational and scenic opportunities while providing water resources for industry and agriculture. The unique climate along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore helps support the diversity of agriculture production associated with western Michigan.

In general, the Great Lakes, except for portions of Lake Erie, and many of its tributaries are phosphorus deficient. As phosphorus enters the lakes, plant growth increases. Much of this additional growth is algae and nuisance plants, which may lead to the loss of recreation and sports fisheries.

In 1972, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada laid the foundation for much of the phosphorus discharge limitations that continue today. There are various sources of phosphorus that contribute to the overall nutrient loading within the Great Lakes watershed. Point sources, or those sources that come out of a pipe, include municipal and industrial discharges and in some areas septic system wastes. Point sources are the easiest to identify and limit. Most point discharges have already been addressed.

Nonpoint sources are those discharges that flow into the surface waters in less defined patterns. Nonpoint sources include agriculture, residential, forest and commercial runoff. Unlike point source discharges, where a daily discharge limitation is established, nonpoint sources are more difficult to control because of their diffuse nature and multiple locations within watersheds. In a single watershed dozens of farmers and commercial businesses and hundreds of home owners may be contributing to the total nutrient loading. Nonpoint source reduction requires the commitment of the entire community to adequately address the problem.

Within Michigan there are ongoing projects with goals for protecting the Great Lakes and its tributaries. The Western Lake Erie Basin project addresses the phosphorus loading in Lake Erie and includes projects in watersheds extending into Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. The Saginaw Bay Coastal Initiative is a collaboration of coastal communities and county governments working with state and federal agencies to improve the Saginaw Bay. The Macatawa Watershed and the Paw Paw River projects are smaller in nature but have addressed nutrient runoff into the local watershed in areas where the community members were ready to take action.

Carrie Vollmer-Sanders is the project director for the Nature Conservancy’s Western Lake Erie Basin Project. Part of her responsibility is to work with landowners and the agricultural industry to keep nutrients in the fields, improve drainage ditches, and encourage soil health which includes the use of cover crops. Vollmer-Sanders will be one of the speakers during the April 23, 2013 Communities and Livestock conference sponsored by Michigan State University Extension. Vollmer-Sanders will be sharing some of her project’s successes and discussing similar projects in Michigan.

The Communities and Livestock conference will be held at the MSU Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health, 4125 Beaumont Road, East Lansing, Mich. Registration will open at 8:30 a.m. and the conference will convene at 9:00 a.m. Preregistration is required. Online registration is available or a mail-in registration form can be found at the same site. Registration fee is $85.00 per person and includes all conference materials, refreshments and lunch.

Michigan is fortunate to have unique fresh water resources. Protecting the quality of those resources is the responsibility of everyone who depends on and utilizes those resources. Communities and Livestock will provide the opportunity to learn more about successful projects that reduce nutrient runoff into surface waters and the Great Lakes.

Resources and further reading