The integrity of the region’s aquatic resources refers to the chemical, physical, and biological quality of these systems to support both human and non-human use. Maintaining these systems' health is important not only for communities and residents, but for the economic, ecological, and recreational values that they convey to the region, in monetary terms as well as the ecosystem services they provide. Lake Michigan is the single most significant water resource to the region as a whole, and is inseparable from its integration with the rest of the Great Lakes and the Chicago Area Waterway System. All of the region’s stakeholders play a pivotal role in managing the Lake's water quality and supply in partnership with other Great Lakes states and Canada. It is also important to note that the natural integrity of Lake Michigan's coastal environment is critical, not only for adjacent communities, but as nearshore and coastal habitat and a critical migratory flyway.
[GRAPHIC TO COME: A photo essay of the region’s water resources.]
The need for clean, abundant, and reliable water resources tends to be taken for granted until shortages, flooding, or low water quality make the water unfit for its intended use. Though water quality, habitat, and ecological conditions have improved in parts of the region since adoption of the Clean Water Act, the majority of our aquatic, wetland, and riparian ecosystems remain in a poor to moderate state of health due to direct and indirect effects of development, transportation systems, industrial and wastewater discharges, agriculture, and other impacts. Climate change will put additional stress on our water resource systems and infrastructure, as higher water temperatures, more variable and extreme precipitation, and drought cycles alter existing ecological conditions and make habitat inhospitable to native aquatic plants and animals, and more susceptible to non-native and invasive species. More broadly, recognizing that climate impacts on other parts of the nation and world are likely to drive population to the water-rich Great Lakes region, the region should begin to prepare today.
Our fragmented management of water systems reflects multiple agencies, each with its own separate mission and programs. In addition, other sectors such as public health, energy, agriculture, and transportation make policy decisions that influence water resource outcomes. Some water resource challenges can, in fact, result when an agency takes action in isolation without considering the interconnected nature of those resources. Cumulatively, individual development decisions -- including agricultural practices, the simple clearing of native riparian vegetation, and individual developments -- can have significant and lasting impacts on neighboring communities and downstream resources, including increased stormwater runoff and flooding, reduced water quality, and decreased drinking water quality and availability. For example, the extent of impervious surfaces associated with urban development is highly correlated with the quality of a watershed’s streams and other resources. Due to this correlation, impervious surface area serves as an indicator of the biological health and physical integrity of surface waters. Inadequate empirical data about the many factors influencing these resources' health necessitates the use of imperviousness as a proxy. The Watershed Integrity local strategy map illustrates the region's percentage of impervious surface by watershed, while the Stream Quality map shows the location of higher-quality aquatic resources among those that have been assessed. Both maps demonstrate the impact of urban development on aquatic resources. It should be noted that only half of the region’s waters have been assessed, and other high quality streams are known to exist. Headwater streams make up a majority of stream miles in the region but have not been assessed, highlighting the need for additional data and monitoring. Most of the remaining higher quality aquatic systems are found in the collar counties, where imperviousness and riparian modifications remain low relative to the rest of the region, and where watershed conditions are more likely to support higher quality streams. Future development in those areas should strive to implement appropriate designs and development practices that protect and enhance these aquatic systems.
[GRAPHIC TO COME: An illustrated watershed diagram highlighting stormwater management best practices to improve water quality.]
Effective water resource management can address some of these challenges and improve the region’s natural assets. ON TO 2050 reaffirms the GO TO 2040 recommendation to integrate planning with water resource management, and suggests a conceptual goal of an integrated water resource framework for managing the region’s water assets. This framework requires both careful consideration of impacts and coordination among decision makers to protect ecosystem health and sustainability.
The region can advance integrated water resource management in a number of ways. Coordination among existing state and federal programs can identify cost-effective ways to maintain water and wastewater infrastructure while protecting natural assets. Watershed plans help identify cross-jurisdictional solutions and can be expanded beyond water quality goals to address additional water resource objectives. Watershed-based workgroups can bring together communities, agencies, and partners to address water quality resources through watershed monitoring and improvements. Local planning and development practices can ensure that redevelopment improves water quality and that new development not only minimizes impacts but also enhances natural resources with the right approach, standards, and design. Infrastructure decisions in particular can have lasting effects on the sustainable management of water systems, as described in greater detail below and in the other two water related strategies. Updating federal programs is a long-term goal, but the region and state can take more immediate actions to improve coordination and decision making that reflect the interconnected nature of water resources. The ON TO 2050 Water Resources strategy paper includes more details about the challenges to our water resources and how to address them.
[GRAPHIC TO COME: A Watershed integrity Local Strategy Map interactive feature will illustrate percent impervious surface by catchment, which is one of many indicators that can be used to assess the quality of aquatic resources. It will highlight policy recommendations for areas with high imperviousness emphasize green infrastructure retrofits and waterway restoration that improves habitat.]
The following subsection describes strategies and actions to implement this recommendation.