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Toolkit: Op-Eds

Higher Education�s Role in Preserving Lakes
Lou Anna Simon
Michigan State University
July 17, 2023

Michigan is a state defined, literally, by water. Without the Great Lakes, Michigan�s peninsulas would not exist, nor would much of the state�s manufacturing, shipping, recreation, and tourism offerings. As the state with more Great Lakes shoreline than any other state, Michigan has often been viewed as the protector of the lakes and, as the state�s only land-grant institution, Michigan State University is often involved in efforts to ensure these national treasures remain healthy and accessible, today and for future generations.

The responsibility to protect and preserve the state�s, the region�s, and the world�s water supplies is even more critical today as water resources all over the globe are threatened by multiple factors, including population growth, rapidly expanding urban and manufacturing centers, and the effects of global climate change.

What we experience in Michigan mirrors the struggles with water quantity and quality around the globe. The Great Lakes are the largest group of freshwater lakes on earth. They contain roughly 95 percent of the fresh surface water of the United States and approximately 22 percent of the world�s fresh surface water. The global importance of, and interest in, the Great Lakes cannot be underestimated. Maintaining the well-being of the entire system is imperative for public safety as well as for the economic health of the region. The need for science-based solutions and informed public policy is critical.

At Michigan State University (MSU), we use an interdisciplinary model to guide the water and environmental research done by investigators across campus. MSU has two agencies dedicated full time to studying water resources: the MSU Institute of Water Research (IWR) and the MSU Center for Water Sciences (CWS). Headed by internationally recognized scientists, both institutes focus on science-based solutions to local and global water quality and quantity issues. Both groups work with state and local governments to advise in the development of public policy concerning water and land use, in addition to participating in multi-institutional programs dealing with global water resource issues.

The depth and breadth of the expertise in the IWR and CWS enables Michigan State to advance an integrated approach to water research, assessing and addressing water quality and quantity concerns by looking at the whole system of interaction between land, water, and air resources.

For example, Joan Rose, MSU researcher and internationally known expert on the relationship between water quality and human health, helps lead the CWS. The Center�s investigators address a variety of research topics, including antibiotics in water and the development of microbial resistance; viral pathogens and waterborne disease; and the effects of contaminants with global origins. Similarly, the IWR was instrumental in providing technical assistance and scientific input into water policy, which was incorporated into Michigan�s recently passed water use legislation.

There are many opportunities for higher education to contribute to the global discussion about water protection and preservation. In particular, universities can provide research, education, and leadership related to:

  • Balancing the water budget to ensure that all sectors�agricultural, industrial, tourism, community, and ecosystem�are integrated and have access to the quality and quantity of water they need for continued growth.
  • Maximizing the availability and accessibility of safe water resources for larger populations around the globe in order to enhance the quality of life and promote prosperity for the more than 1 billion people worldwide who the United Nations reports currently lack access to clean drinking water.
  • Enhancing community infrastructure and environments to make water protection and conservation a priority. Wastewater, combined sewer overflow, storm water, and other non-point source pollution need to be addressed with science-and risk-based public/environmental harm assessments and prioritization protocols based on risk reduction and economic impact.

As people worldwide begin to implement more sustainable practices, higher education offers independent, science-based information that can inform policy as well as develop and evaluate new technologies to ensure the future of safe, clean, abundant water.

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