Virtual Wolverine Caucus: The Great Lakes Water Level and Where We Go from Here

By Erica Colaianne

Two U-M experts from the School for Environment and Sustainability discussed the magnitude of the Great Lakes system, why water level variability needs to be monitored, and what policy action is necessary to protect the Great Lakes in the latest virtual Wolverine Caucus on Friday, April 30. 

Drew Gronewold, associate professor, and Jon Allan, academic and research program officer, explained why it’s important to understand water balance in the Great Lakes and what forecasting can be completed with this information. 

Gronewald said that the Great Lakes make up a significant portion of fresh surface water in the US. 

“There are roughly 100 million lakes across the Earth’s surface that account for virtually all of the fresh surface water storage. For all of the freshwater in the 100 million lakes, there are ten large lakes on Earth that hold 80% of all of that water, and several of them are right here in our backyard,” Gronewold says. 

It is known that the water levels of the Great Lakes will go up and down, Allan said. He added that the health of the Great Lakes lives within a bandwidth of water and emphasized the importance of also looking at the living shoreline and how it needs to be managed. 

“Understanding this dynamic nature of the system is a consequence of what we have to really continue to figure out,” Allan said. “If we start to think about the system as fixed in time, then we will start to cut ourselves off from the very systems that create health and vibrancy in the thing that we love the most — the Great Lakes.”

Hear more from Gronewold in this episode of Michigan Minds

“Thinking about the future and this idea of variability…and the extent to which we are able to tolerate rapid changes in water levels, as well as potentially short-term sustained periods of highs followed by short-term periods of lows, the question I would leave everyone is: What does that mean in terms of our coastal infrastructure and our tolerance for that? It’s a tough sustainability question,” Gronewald said.

Allan noted that research universities like U-M are critical to this conversation. 

“These are not only policy questions. They’re questions of science, the interpretation of science, and how that drives societal change. I think our work, our interest, and our passion is to help in that transition, but I think it is the role of the research university to participate in these deeper social questions,” Allan said.

“I think U-M in particular, but our colleagues also, form a really important voice and role in the health and the ongoing viability of the role of the research institution. I think it’s vital in this conversation.”

Interested in attending a future Wolverine Caucus program? Visit the Government Relations website to stay informed about upcoming events.