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Water Winter Wonderland…But How Much Longer?
When I was a kid growing up in Michigan, “Water Winter Wonderland” was the slogan for our state. This was long before “Pure Michigan”. Before “Say Yes to Michigan”. Even before “Say Yah to da U.P. too, eh”. I always liked “Water Winter Wonderland” because it seemed to encapsulate what was special about Michigan. We had the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater resource in the world. Lots of beautiful rivers flowed into those Great Lakes which made for great paddling. And we had lots of snow in the winter so you could go outside and experience nature while engaging in recreational activities like cross country skiing. [Last week, as I was skiing my favorite trail at Allegan State Game Area, I realized I had been skiing this same path for 38 years!] But today I am sitting at my desk contemplating things like water and snow and wondering whether these will even be defining characteristics of Michigan in the future.
Surprisingly, my bad humor began as I was preparing for a 7 week camping/kayaking/back packing trip to the Southwest. The highlight of my journey is supposed to be a solo wilderness kayak trip thru Big Bend National Park on the Wild and Scenic Rio Grande River. But water levels are so low on the river right now that some portions of the river may be too low to paddle. This is partially a consequence of the severe, multi-year drought in the Southwest. But it is also directly related to our society’s voracious appetite for water.
Drive through the suburbs of any large city in the Southwest and you will see exactly what you see here in the Midwest, lush green lawns greedily sucking up water. I have a friend in Albuquerque who drilled not one, but two wells to provide the water necessary to recreate a Michigan lawn and garden landscape in a desert climate. It turns out we use so much of the water in the Rio Grande, that 80% of the water that does flow thru Big Bend N.P. comes from a Mexican tributary, the Rio Conchas. This is a staggering thought to me; that all that snowmelt from the southern Colorado Rockies and Sangre de Cristo Range in New Mexico gets used up before the Rio Grande even gets to southern Texas.
So what does this have to do with Michigan? Our freshwater resource is inexhaustible. Droughts only occur in arid places like the Southwest, right? That killer heat wave and drought we experienced in June and July last year was a once in a lifetime event, never to be repeated… A few weeks ago, a local newspaper ran a story about the river harbor at St. Joseph/Benton Harbor. In spots, the harbor is only 2 feet deep with obvious, severe implications for both commercial shipping and recreational boating. The shallow harbor depth is because of the extremely low water level of Lake Michigan. But it turns out that Lake Michigan’s low level is a direct result of Lake Superior’s low level. Basic Geography 101: water from Lake Superior flows into the Lake Michigan/ Lake Huron basin before then flowing into Lake Erie and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean.
Lake Superior has a vast watershed extending beyond Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota far into Canada. But last year there was virtually no snowpack in that huge watershed. Reduced snowpack led to diminished spring run-off which led to low lake levels. Not just in Lake Superior, but even many hundreds of miles away in Southwest Michigan. Yep, that is the problem with being part of a watershed, stuff that happens [or snow that doesn’t fall] way upstream still affects us. It would be so nice [dare I use the word “convenient”] to believe that this is just a fluke, a statistical outlier. I visited my son in the western U.P. last week, just in time for their 1st significant snowfall of the season. In February… Unfortunately, computer models of global climate change predict that extreme variations such as last year’s lack of snowpack will occur much more often in the future.
All of which ranting leads me to urge people to attend an upcoming event on February 27 that is being co-sponsored by Two Rivers Coalition: “Adapting and Planning for Climate Change”. This event should be interesting for everyone, even those who disagree with the vast majority of the world’s scientists who think human beings are contributing to increased carbon dioxide levels thereby causing global climate changes. Even climate deniers agree that extreme weather events seem to be occurring more often and causing more destruction than in the past. This community forum will discuss ways to be pro-active, to anticipate and plan for extreme weather and climate events. It seems eminently sensible to discuss strategies for dealing with future droughts, heat waves, lowered lake levels, etc. But it is also sad to think the snow I see outside my window today may be a rarity in the not so distant future; a future where people will wonder why Michigan ever called itself the “Water Winter Wonderland”.
For more information on Climate Change visit http://www.swmpc.org/climatechange.asp.
So, nearly 6 years later ...and for the past two years, Lake Michigan water levels are at record highs and creating enormous erosion issues, which in turn lead to some interesting property rights battles with the DEQ/DNR.
It seems that weather is cyclical. And climate is a dynamic not a static system.