Wayne State University

Water Related Interdisciplinary Innovation Ecosystem in the Great Lakes (WRI2eGL)

Water resources

Launching a solutions-focused collaborative for policy-makers, water utilities, and researchers to work together to scale-up new technological and policy solutions to urban water infrastructure problems.

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To learn more about – or provide significant funding to – this project, please contact Lever for Change.

Project Summary

North American community and economic development patterns have led to failing water infrastructure and unsustainable resource management practices. The impacts on public and environmental health will impact future generations, disproportionately affecting marginalized populations. Now that scientists, engineers, governments and community groups have examined these problems and taken pilot practices through proof-of-concept, it is time to scale-up potential long-term solutions. Specific to Detroit and other urban Great Lakes waterfront cities is the problem of urban flooding and its associated health and economic devastation. Public policies and infrastructure investments are aligned toward outdated practices that are not sustainable under current population and climate projections. A shift in thinking is required, as is a collaborative space for building momentum to support that shift. We propose building upon our existing testbed efforts to create a Center to establish urban policies, practices and technologies that fully support sustainable, equitable and healthy water resource use.

Problem Statement

The Great Lakes watershed in North America contains more than 20% of the world’s available fresh water. This fact, alone, is a staggering testament to the importance of this region for future sustainability of humans globally. The fresh water of this region provides more than drinking water; it provides recreation, habitat, important food sources, the base for tourism, and a regional economy that compares to the fourth-largest nation in the world. While it may be hard to imagine, future generations from around the globe may be competing to obtain the riches of this region. While the region holds abundant natural resources, it also suffers from past uses that focused more on exploitation than protection. Rivers were “tamed” and forced underground; logging and mineral extraction depleted the land of nutrients, essential microorganisms, and natural resiliency. Industries used the Great Lakes as cheap cooling and production water. Communities supporting these industries were afforded sewerage and treatment systems far sooner than others in North America. As a result, combined sewer systems were the norm: both human waste and storm water flowed toward a treatment facility in a single pipe. Other persistent waste byproducts, toxic product components made their way into the soil and water through misuse, spills and deliberate land application. These chemicals continue to leach into groundwater and make their way to surface water and the drinking-water intakes serving over 50 million people. Without a unified and improved approach to governance, technology and management practices, these problems persist.

Solution Overview

We envision urban policies, practices and technologies that fully support sustainable, equitable and healthy water resource use. To achieve this, we propose implementing a regional interdisciplinary innovation ecosystem that unites policymakers, water utilities, researchers and the public to systemically and bi-nationally change the way urban areas manage water, from upstream use to waste recapture to downstream use. By creating a technical hub to scale-up existing innovative solutions into policy changes that support market-ready technologies, informed by cutting-edge science, we will transform the regulatory, social and scientific framework for freshwater resource management in cities.Establishing such an innovation ecosystem in the Great Lakes region will benefit billions of humans and many more organisms worldwide: by demonstrating universal mechanisms for addressing seemingly intractable urban water problems, we will create logical pathways for creating urban water sustainability globally. The overarching goal of this project is protection of the world’s freshwater resources. Expanding upon existing community, university, industry and governance partnerships, the MacArthur Foundation award will allow us to scale-up and formalize an optimized approach to environmentally and socially informed urban water management practices, with the following outcomes:•Separation of sanitary and storm sewage and elimination of associated ecosystem impacts•Collaboration, not competition, between governmental and other entities•Full testbed development for scaling-up innovations in water infrastructure •Systematic documentation of the most effective and economic means of achieving multiple water resource objectives simultaneously •Economic incentives and policy mechanisms for emission-free energy, ecosystem restoration, and associated public health benefits

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Project Funders

  • Fred A and Barbara M Erb Family Foundation 2018 - 2021
  • National Science Foundation 2018 - 2019
  • Michigan Department of Environmental Quality 2017 - 2019

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