Water resource management problems may be global, but to find solutions, we can begin by looking locally. Dr. Jon Bartholic, Director of the Institute of Water Research at Michigan State University, is helping to lead the effort to preserve our water resources.
“Universities come up with a lot of new ideas, approaches, technologies – we try to take those to the stage where they can be of immediate use by communities, by industry, by other development activities that are trying to be more sustainable, particularly relative to water resources,” says Bartholic.
Bartholic and his colleagues at the IWR operate under the legal aegis of the Water Resources Research Act, which mandates the research of water systems in each state across the nation. Many of these institutes are connected to land grant universities.
Part of that legal mandate is for IWR and its counterparts across the U.S. to work closely with local units of government, as well as on state and national levels. More specifically, the IWR seeks to identify problems and develop technologies and practices that create local, community-based solutions to preserve water resources.
The Institute of Water Research has developed a number of sophisticated, web-based tools to make it easier—and, in some cases, even fun—for communities and individuals to monitor and assess their impact on water systems. For example, Bartholic and colleagues developed Networked Neighborhoods for Eco-Conservation Online (NECO), a website that allows individuals and businesses to get involved in the effort to preserve water sources. Interactive tools on the website allow users to communicate with one another about conservation techniques they are using and explore what others are doing in their communities as well.
“All of us have a big impact on water quality and quantity in our own backyards, in our neighborhoods,” says Bartholic. NECO seeks to empower local environmental groups to aid individuals in utilizing tools such as rain gardens, rain barrels, and porous pavements. The website allows users to upload practices and photographs, which can be shared and adopted by others in their community.
“One neighborhood can compare with another with the idea really of empowering and getting citizens interested because it’s really at the local level that such a dynamic difference can be made,” says Bartholic.
Another water management tool developed at IWR is High Impact Targeting (HIT). HIT helps local government officials, community planners and developers analyze landscapes that are high in pollutants, particularly sediment, which is one of the major pollutants in Midwest watersheds. “Most of that sediment comes from less than 10 or 20 percent of the land,” says Bartholic. Using satellite technology, digital elevation, land use, and other techniques, HIT can help determine how many pollutants could potentially end up in water systems.
Bartholic believes that Michigan’s long-term environmental, economic and social sustainability will be determined by how diligent we are in protecting our resources. A case in point is the expansion of our agricultural sector.
“Michigan has some real opportunities to expand food production, food processing, and help feed the world. And we are doing that. Those areas of the state are growing rapidly. But as we increase irrigation to assure that food supply, we also have more demands on the water,” says Bartholic. “If we can work together on that with new technologies and information systems, and work with a lot of international partners as well as domestic partners, I think we can and will make good decisions.”