THE GREAT LAKES
The fresh water of the Great Lakes defines not only the two peninsulas that form the geography of the State of Michigan but also much of our culture. The statistics alone are absolutely astounding: Michigan features 3,200 miles of coastline—more than any other state except Alaska; our Great Lakes hold 20% of the surface freshwater in the world; and with an additional 11,000 inland lakes, there may not be another place with better access to freshwater than Michigan.
While Lake Superior and Lake Huron are even larger, Lake Michigan is one of the most significant freshwater lakes on the planet Earth. Over 300 miles long and 118 miles at its widest point, it reaches to a depth of over 900 feet with an average depth of 279 feet. Based on surface area, Michigan is the fourth largest freshwater lake. Based on volume, Lake Michigan is the fifth largest in the world. By any measure, Lake Michigan is a natural wonder, an economic asset, and a national treasure.
And especially in the spring, summer, and fall, many aspects of who we are as a culture are also defined by our relationship to freshwater. We swim, sail, canoe, kayak, motor, hunt, fish, surf, go to the beach, build sand castles, watch sunsets, or just hang out next to our favorite body of water: our lake, our creek, our river, or even our pond. There’s something in these bodies of freshwater that inexplicably draws us back again and again, and we are somehow better for having been there.
In addition, the Great Lakes are an essential part of our economy in the Upper Midwest. They contribute a significant source of drinking and industrial water; they provide a water highway for the transportation of goods and raw materials; and they draw millions of tourists who come here to experience something other than what they have access to at home. For example, our water and coastal habitats here in the Saugatuck Dunes support a wide range of plants and animals that are unique to this one place.
As the Tri-Community plans states, “Although waterfront lands have a high revenue generating potential, a major attraction of both the Lake Michigan and Kalamazoo River waterfronts is their scenic, natural shorelines composed of forested sand dunes and large wetland areas. Should these natural areas be greatly damaged or destroyed through inappropriate development, then the ‘goose that laid the golden egg’ will be dead.”
Despite the wonder of the Great Lakes and the fact that access to clean freshwater is one of the essential necessities to sustain any form of life, we have been negligent in protecting these natural resources. In little over 200 years, non-point source pollution, toxic chemicals such as PCBs, invasive species, sewer overflows, water diversion, and habitat loss have become major threats to the health of the dynamic system of the Great Lakes and to the people and creatures living in the Great Lakes watershed.
So, how do we respond to these threats to our ways of life? A few questions to begin with are as follows:
- What are the top priorities for cleaning up our freshwater resources?
- What are the major levers of change?
- How do we cause ourselves and the general public to understand the critical importance of the dynamic systems of the Great Lakes?
- How do we manage growth responsibly in our own community?
This is surely a multi-generational process, but we owe it to our children and our grandchildren to begin finding better ways of securing our most precious resources.