RISEUP: Research Internships for a Sustainable Environment with Undergraduate Participation

Improving Water Management in the Great Lakes Basin

Jonathan Witham, 2014 RISEUP Intern

Mentors: Jeff Edstrom, Jodi McCarthy at ECT, Inc.

Download the powerpoint presentation.


Project Summary:

Within the Great Lakes basin, people view the Great Lakes as an endless supply of clean water. Therefore, people and municipalities do not view water conservation as a priority, which makes water conservation practices hard to implement. Despite this geographic region being water-rich, the water supply in the Great Lakes is being abused. Municipalities are selling large amounts of water for extra profit, and governments are not pursuing strong water conservation strategies. Some examples of the resulting repercussions include depleted groundwater resources and aquatic habitats, degraded water quality, lower stream flows, and more storm sewer overflows into the Great Lakes. In order to meet future population water demands and to mitigate the above issues, the Alliance for Water Efficiency, the Great Lakes Commission, and Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc., (ECT) are focusing on financial models and green infrastructure practices within three municipalities in Oakland County, Michigan, United States and three municipalities in the Grand River Watershed in Ontario, Canada. These communities will be studied in order to develop a sustainable financial model beneficial for other municipalities to adopt to conserve water resources and improve ecological integrity across the Great Lakes basin. The project is also examining effective knowledge-transfer techniques for the improvement of water management through relaying the benefits of these six case studies after implementing water conservation practices. Specifically, southwest Oakland Township, Lyon Township, and Commerce Township in Oakland County, MI and the City of Waterloo, the Region of Waterloo, and the City of Guelph in Ontario, Canada are being examined. These six case studies will allow other municipalities to gain knowledge on how conservation practices can work on a watershed scale, instead of on an individual municipal-thinking level. The project participants are examining the following three hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: Innovation in water management at the municipal level will contribute to ecological integrity at the watershed and Great lakes basin scales.

Hypothesis 2: Quantifying financial implications and environmental outcomes for municipal and public stakeholders will help drive innovation in the development and adoption of municipal best management practices, including conservation and green infrastructure programs.

Hypothesis 3: Knowledge-transfer strategies will improve knowledge acquisition, helping to enable a greater degree of innovation in water management.

The Research Internships for a Sustainable Environment with Undergraduate Participation (RISEUP) program at Wayne State University is partnering with ECT in this project during the summer of 2014 to examine the sustainability of the green infrastructure practices for the model, and also how to best transfer knowledge between stakeholders on the necessity of a sustainable model in the Great Lakes basin. Different environmental impacts of current water use will be examined in each of the six communities, as well as the financial implications of current water use practices and water conservation methods. It is presumed that current water usage in these communities is not being completed within a financially and environmentally sustainable manner, and that certain water conservation programs will be beneficial to these communities.

Expected Outcomes:

Green infrastructure practices should be a good method to implement to reduce storm water flows. We expect that green infrastructure practices that take up much land space, such as rain gardens or wet meadows, will work most effectively in suburban and agricultural environments. Practices that need little surface area to implement will work better in urban environments, due to limited space requirements in urban settings. A better method for an urban environment could be using rainwater collection barrels at individual businesses or homes. However, we think that because the area is so water-rich, residents and business owners may not understand the need to implement water conservation practices in the Great Lakes, causing communication conflict when trying to implement effective knowledge-transfer techniques.

Outline of Results:

The Oakland County townships are suburban with large houses and large amounts of open green space. On the other hand, the Cities of Guelph and Waterloo are more urbanized. The Region of Waterloo encompasses more suburban and agricultural land. After researching different green infrastructure practices, it was determined that bioswales and rain gardens would work well in suburban environments like in Oakland County. For urban environments like the cities of Guelph and Waterloo, a multiple-unit cistern collection system would work most ideally. Individual rain barrels are too small in volume to make much of a difference in capturing enough water from flowing directly into sewers and streams. These practices will help collect water and slowly recycle or release it into groundwater or streams. The cistern collection working as a system and collecting water from multiple businesses and houses would be much more beneficial to reducing storm water flow because a larger volume of water can be captured and available for access to multiple businesses. If cisterns were implemented on an individual building basis, then there would most likely be little impact noticeable on the environment much like with rain barrels.

Some of the environmental impacts discovered during research are:

  • Storm water impacts occur over a broader area where water is moved over hard surfaces through pipes to a specific location where it enters streams much earlier than it otherwise would naturally without pipes. This can lead to faster stream flow during and just after rain events, downstream flooding, and increased contaminant levels due to water pulling them from streets.
  • Impacts of water withdrawals tend to be concentrated at the point of withdrawal. As more water is withdrawn from a single well or water source, the extent of localized environmental impact increases.
  • Water pushed into streams through storm water systems are not allowed to recharge groundwater. Cumulative impacts of development over time reduce natural groundwater flow that supports stream flow and other surface ecology.
  • Green infrastructure should be designed in context of local needs and sizing. In developed areas, it should be integrated with the existing gray infrastructure systems to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
  • A central part of the solution is a combination of water conservation/efficiency and green infrastructure programs. Water conservation and construction of green infrastructure keep water closer to where it falls so that it can provide benefits to the environment in those areas, instead of allowing water to flow into pipes and sewer networks.

Financial models and management programs were also examined in this project by other project partners. A list of the most important lessons learned gathered from these project partners after conducting research includes:

Financial Impacts:

  • Additional strategies to reduce water use demand may be required if conservation programs are not cost-effective.
  • Due to the uncertainty surrounding outdoor water use efficiency programs, a utility may choose to pilot conservation programs that are not quite cost-effective.

Management Impacts:

  • Green infrastructure practices must be seen as a system, not as individual projects.
  • There is a need to take an integrated water system approach to water supply and water management planning. Currently, water use, storm water, and wastewater are managed and viewed separately.
  • Each service area is unique. What works in one community may not work elsewhere.
  • Water quality standards and finances must be adjusted according to the limitation of the receiving water body. Currently in Ontario, agricultural and urban water bodies are regulated under the same water quality standards.

The project advisory board is also designing an effective knowledge-transfer method to explain the methods from the six case studies to other municipalities within the Great Lakes basin. Some of the lessons learned from knowledge-transfer include:

  • One cannot communicate the same vision to all audiences, due to the varying interests of individuals.
  • When communicating, one needs to use current examples that resonate with people to engage audiences and relate the matter at hand.
  • One needs to use past case studies and examples that explain the benefits of conservation practices, and what mistakes to learn from and not repeat.
  • People on different sides of the continent, even from different countries, can still give advice to one another. We all have something to learn from one another.
  • Knowledge-transfer techniques must be tailored to the particular audience’s understanding. This may include emphasizing certain points or avoiding certain terminology.

The RISEUP program is also interested in sustainability amongst different stakeholders in the Detroit-Erie corridor, and how conflict can ensue within environmental projects. Different stakeholder conflict resolutions associated with this project include:

  • People in collaborating groups must work together to agree on a vision and toolkit to give to multiple municipalities.
  • Municipalities may be stakeholders to one another based on the source of drinking water purchase. Municipalities and officials will need to work together to maintain proper water distribution and use.
  • Climate change will only continue causing stress and competition between sectors with high demand for water use, including businesses within agriculture, livestock feeding, energy production, and sewer infrastructure.


Before beginning this internship, Jonathan Witham graduated from Michigan Technological University with a Bachelors of Science degree in Environmental Engineering in May 2014. Afterwards, he is starting his studies toward a Master’s of Science degree in Environmental Engineering with an emphasis in Water Resources Engineering at Michigan Tech in fall 2014. His project mentors were Jeff Edstrom, the Senior Program Manager, and Jodi McCarthy, a Storm Water Engineer, P.E., who both work for ECT in Chicago, IL.

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