Thinking about Water: Roundtable Discussion

For this issue of The Engaged Scholar Magazine, MSU's Institute of Water Research hosted a roundtable discussion about the challenges of managing water systems in and around the Great Lakes region. Five senior scholars and practitioners weighed in with their thoughts and ideas about where to go from here and what role Michigan State University might play, now and in the future.

Jon Allan

Jon Allan
Director, Office of the Great Lakes
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

Jon Allan has a background in fisheries, wildlife, and the aquatic sciences and has several decades of experience in environmental policy and law. He is working on the strategic plan for Michigan's water resources for the next 30 years.

Jeremiah Asher

Jeremiah Asher
Director, Information/Decision Support Technology
MSU Institute of Water Research

Jeremiah Asher has a background in project management, computer consulting, community information system development, natural resource management, and watershed analysis. He is responsible for IWR's information systems and web based tools.

Tim Boring

Tim Boring
Vice President
Michigan Agri-Business Association

Tim Boring manages agronomy issues and oversees research activities at MABA. He is a farmer who has worked with IWR and the Nature Conservancy on farm practices and modeling to calculate impacts of various solutions to agricultural runoff.

Lisa Brush

Lisa Brush
Executive Director
Stewardship Network, Michigan

Lisa Brush has been leading collaborative conservation initiatives in the nonprofit environmental sector for over two decades, engaging both professionals and volunteers in identifying community and conservation needs of the 21st century.

David Lusch

David Lusch
Senior Specialist Environmental Spatial Sciences
MSU Department of Geography

David Lusch is an IWR affiliate whose areas of interest are spatial technology, remote sensing/GIS, and physical geography, particularly of Michigan. He serves on the Water Use Advisory Committee, which provides stakeholder advice to the Water Use Program within the MDEQ.

Linda Chapel Jackson


Linda Chapel Jackson
Editor, The Engaged Scholar Magazine

Linda Chapel Jackson is senior editor at MSU University Outreach and Engagement.

About the Institute of Water Research

MSU's Institute of Water Research (IWR) is one of 54 federally designated water institutes created under the Water Resources Research Act of 1964 and administered by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). It also receives ongoing support from MSU AgBioResearch and Extension.

IWR co-creates solutions with partners to address critical concerns around water resources in the Great Lakes, using technology, research, and outreach to develop sound and practical applications to address needs in the Great Lakes basin. The Institute has many federal, state, and nonprofit partnerships and 75 percent of its work is regionally based. A concept of asset integration is often used, which involves joint funding of personnel to work between organizations.

Moderator: What are the primary challenges of water management in Michigan today?

Brush: I would say source water protection in terms of drinking water, groundwater, and surface water. Those are certainly front and center. There's also public education around those areas, and how we engage the larger community. It's not just a role for institutions and governments. Certainly we can't not talk about the Flint water crisis and the wealth divisions that are at play in that situation. In the work that I'm engaged in with ecosystem restoration, invasive species in the Great Lakes are a big concern as well.

Allan: First, nonpoint source nutrient enrichment is a huge issue, not just for the Great Lakes but everywhere across the country. Second, it's more than just invasive species, it's about biological pollution. It's a systems level problem that's ripping apart food webs and what we have historically held as our water resources. Third, the inexorable and increasing utilization of groundwater will also create tensions—ecological, social, cultural, economic—that we haven't seen in this region of perceived abundance, ever.

Lusch: Another issue in the groundwater realm is the limitation of potable groundwater through natural contamination, such as arsenic, chlorides, and other dissolved solids that are not associated with anthropogenic impacts. In certain parts of Michigan, especially the lowland areas in southern Lower Michigan, communities are getting stressed from both sides. One limitation is how much water is available to be extracted and the other limitation is how potable that water is (i.e., its natural quality).

Asher: Some challenges come in the diverse use of water. Different groups value water in different ways and that poses difficult management issues.

Allan: Right. And a thoughtful, usable flow of information that supports those insights and decision making is lacking, especially on the groundwater side.

Moderator: Is there any one most pressing issue?

Boring: Within our organization it's nutrient management for protection of surface waters. We're also working on responsible use of groundwater for irrigation, but the overwhelming issue for us is nutrient management, specifically phosphorus but nitrogen as well, based on the importance of that nationally.

Allan: I'll agree but broaden it a little bit and talk about hydrologic management. Nutrient management is a piece of managing water as it flows through and across the landscape. How do you do it in the urban environment, storm water, peak flow, green infrastructure, and rural environments? How do you reconnect streams for biological connectivity that not only protects them against invasives but helps maintain healthy populations?

Brush: We as humans on this planet have made decisions about and taken action on improving the quality of life for all of us. And we've also started to realize there are negative impacts to our environment as a result. So now how do we understand and mitigate that? How do we use green infrastructure and nature's solutions for our urban areas? We need to understand how we put nutrients on the land and the impact it has on our streams, lakes, and oceans.

Asher: The movement of water is the driving factor of all of these other things, the nutrients and the stream temperatures, and everything that drives these factors is related to how we change the landscape either through tile drainage systems or urban impervious surfaces—those all impact the hydrology.

Lusch: For me the number one issue is ensuring safe drinking water. If you can't drink the water, you can't farm, you can't recreate, you can't do anything. People are under the opinion that if we contaminate one aquifer we'll just go to the next one and the next one, and this can go on forever. And that's simply not true. As the people of Toledo, and before that Cleveland, found out, even if you're getting your drinking water from the Great Lakes we have now jerked the ecosystem around so much that we're impacting surface water intakes in what had been perceived as the last great bastion of drinkable water on the planet.

Allan: We call it the culture of the disposability of water and we've lived in this culture—use it, throw it away, go get new—for centuries. That's over, even in our abundant region. And people have got to get over it.

Moderator: What is your organization or agency's responsibility/interest with respect to water issues?

Allan: Office of the Great Lakes has two roles. One is to manage, maintain, and utilize a set of relationships for the shared governance of Great Lakes resources. The Great Lakes are managed through this set of important relationships. Our primary mission is to maintain and manage those relationships with our seven other states and two provinces in two countries as we look at the shared water body. Secondarily it's to drive restoration of degraded systems and facilitate a long-term holistic view of water management in the State of Michigan. We utilize the water strategy and restoration programs and our coastal programs to do those things.

Brush: The Stewardship Network's primary role is engaging communities in the care of the land and water within their specific geographic communities. It's to bring the diverse stakeholders together around that.

Asher: For the Institute of Water Research, we operate as a kind of boundary organization between the University and outside groups, to work with those groups using technology, research, and outreach to co-create solutions that address water issues.

Boring: For Michigan Agribusiness it's specifics, including providing guidance to crop advisers on how they work with producers on issues like nutrient management, but also across the whole breadth of farming operations to develop plans for how to responsibly manage agricultural operations for protection of surface water and groundwater.

Moderator: What role does the MSU Institute of Water Research play in helping your organization solve critical concerns?

Boring: We work to position ourselves on the leading edge of issues and to offer support to our members to address those issues. Our crop adviser members inherently have limited capacity to address every issue, so how do you prioritize those things? And what are the steps we need to take today with an eye on how issues will evolve over the span of decades? But it's also having specific action items that we can be working with and communicating today—developing computer tools for better informed decision making, networking with others to make sure that we're plugged in to that broader community and are hearing all the things we need to be hearing. IWR has been a great partner with us in all of those steps.

Brush: It's an amazing privilege to work with IWR. I think back to our two-decades ago work on groundwater and drinking water protection, and IWR providing critical scientific information and a sounding board for all of the practices that we put in place, to our current work in terms of nutrient management—how to reduce nutrient loads from agricultural practices in farm fields—and IWR providing the online tools, the information systems, to make that information readily accessible, and providing more than just what's available off the shelf in terms of scientific information. Really diving deep into what is happening on the ground.

Allan: I'm reflecting on the same theme in a slightly different way. One is as a connecting node to a really big body of research here at the University and the ability to pull that into practical terms. It's hard for a lot of our practitioners and departments to penetrate, so we need these transboundary organizations to do that. That's critical. Number two is, IWR does its own original synthesis thinking—not just each piece, but helping us integrate it into a cogent whole. The third part is the ability to reflect that back into usable tools and practical solutions. IWR is well positioned to do all three of those things.

Moderator: In turn, what contribution does your organization or agency make to the University's processes and products? What do you provide?

Brush: We provide real world applications for what you all do. You're providing the tools, the resources, the scientific knowledge, and we provide a channel for those to be applied and used.

Asher: In the same way, we operate as a boundary for the University and its partners to help transfer information and research to applications. Without the partners that are doing these activities, our work would be very limited. What the partnerships bring to us is connections with groups and issues that we can help develop technologies and research to address.

Lusch: In the water arena on this campus, IWR is unusual, if not unique, in doing much more than classic outreach. Classic outreach tended to be a one-way information delivery vehicle primarily. Engagement, at least as I understand it, is a two-way dynamic. It's having a partner that is providing not only questions, but insights—what will work, what tools are needed—as opposed to having outreach staff saying here are the tools we thought of, take them or leave them.

Boring: IWR is a fantastic example of the University delivering unique products and processes for stakeholders. We take the role of providing a feedback loop into the University about what the research needs to look like seriously, but also try to offer another conduit to extend knowledge generated at IWR.

Allan: Over my career I've worn two principal hats in my relationship with IWR. What the corporate world—where I spent 21 years—brought to IWR was two things: a set of real problems we needed to solve and the ability to push hard for those solutions. And we've built a lot of collaborative capacity to push each other to do that. The other hat is with the state, which brings management issues to solve too. It also has a very strict regulatory mandate; there are things it needs to provide the public and the legislature, but it doesn't have all the answers or tools on how to do that. The state needs to push institutions to help find new solutions to new problems. Solving the water problems of the 21st century will not be done using 20th-century tools. We don't live in a point-source problem dominated world anymore. We're living in a very distributed problem world, the problems of invasives, nutrients, groundwater, recharge—these are all distributed problems much harder than the point-source world and we don't have the tools invented yet.

Lusch: Having facets of state government as long-term integral partners gives a public sounding board that IWR and MSU would not otherwise have. Long ago, I was taught that leadership can be defined as taking people where they don't want to go. MDEQ's work and the whole state effort to come out with a water strategy was a collaborative co-creation because of the many road miles Jon and his staff put on doing the public meetings for that. If that effort hadn't gone on, this would not be a bottom-up issue. The leadership the state can provide is critical to allowing us to see some of the larger macro issues that communities have vocalized, and then work with our partners to bring it down to the tools that we need to develop in order to move forward on a particular issue.

  • Written by Linda Chapel Jackson, University Outreach and Engagement

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