Water Quality & Climate Change in the Midwest

  • Lake Michigan, as seen from the Empire Bluff hike. (Photo by Rebecca Williams/Michigan Radio)

Leaders from the U.S. and Canada are getting together to talk about water…

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

There’s a pact between the two countries. It’s called the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.  It takes on all sorts of threats to water in our region… from toxic chemicals to runoff from farms and sewer overflows from cities.

Lyman Welch is with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. He says when the agreement was first signed 40 years ago… it was promising.

“However, over the years, we have found the agreement has become somewhat more ineffective as new challenges have arisen.”

Challenges such as climate change and prescription drugs getting into drinking water. The two countries updated the agreement last fall.  Tomorrow, leaders will try to figure out how to implement it.  Both countries pledged to do more to tackle invasive species, adapt to climate change and clean up polluted areas.

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This is the Environment Report.

You probably remember that extreme weather was not kind to Michigan crops last year.

“We lost more than 80 percent of our apples and peaches, we lost grapes and cherries.”

Frank Szollosi is with the National Wildlife Federation.

“Our cherry farmers saw 90 percent of its crop destroyed because of the unusually warm winter last year followed by hard freezes.”

The federal government has put out a new draft report on how our climate is changing. More than 240 scientists wrote the report.  It’s called the National Climate Assessment.

Agriculture is one of the key messages of their chapter on the Midwest. The report says in the next few decades, longer growing seasons and rising carbon dioxide levels will increase yields of some crops.

“And so that could initially be good for agriculture. But then you have to think about what’s happening with precipitation.”

Don Scavia is a lead author of the Midwest chapter. He’s the director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan.

“We’re getting more and more extreme rainfall events and floods in the spring, coupled with a longer, drier summer. So that increase in the frequency of storms and heat waves could actually end up being bad for agriculture.”

He says the agricultural community will also need to find ways to deal with the potential for warmer springs with sudden cold snaps.

The report also notes that ice cover on the Great Lakes has been going down since the 1970’s, especially for lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Ontario.  

Don Scavia says less ice could mean a longer shipping season. But it could also mean more lake effect snow.

“Because there will be more evaporation off of the Lakes, so initially that increased water vapor will end up as larger snow events and lake effect snow events, but as temperatures warm, they’ll probably turn into rain events.”

This is the third National Climate Assessment.  For the first time, it includes a chapter on ways we might be able to adapt to a warming climate.

“Much of the focus is rightly placed on mitigation – on what the countries need to do around the globe to reduce emissions, so we can stop this progression of moving towards a warmer climate, but we have to start helping people adapt, because no matter what we do at this point, the climate is already changing and it’s going to continue to change.”

He says that means, for example, looking at the infrastructure in our cities and making sure we can deal with heavier storms, and protecting people who are at risk from increased heat waves.

The report is open for public comment.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.