Maybe more than any other state, Michigan is literally shaped by the water around it. Culturally, economically, historically, and of course, physically. The Great Lakes define our 3,000 miles of coastline. More than 11,000 inland lakes and hundreds of rivers and wetlands nourish everything in between. Our water resources have always been at the top of Michigan’s most valuable natural assets, the lifeblood for our farming, fishing, shipping, manufacturing, recreation, and tourism.
None of that is new. What’s new is this concept called the Blue Economy—and by understanding what it means, and acting on it, we are in a unique position to become national and even global leaders in the emerging technologies, research, and economic development based on innovative and sustainable uses of our freshwater resources.
Not surprisingly, some of the countries with the least of this valuable resource are the ones making the biggest strides in “smart water,” from conservation and management innovations to water technology business development. Some of our Great Lakes cousins—Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Ontario—are also realizing their freshwater riches provide a unique advantage to get ahead of the pack in technology, research, education, and business development.
But no one—repeat, no one—is in a better position to do that than Michigan, the Great Lakes State itself. So what are we waiting for? The Blue Economy can drive a new round of job and wealth creation in Michigan. Michigan can provide the perfect home for research into smart and sustainable technologies to help solve global water problems. Our water assets can be a powerful placemaking strategy for economic and community development.
Sure, innovation is hard. It’s always simpler to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. To ride the waves behind us, not make the ones ahead.
Famous surfer Bethany Hamilton, who was 13 years old when she lost her arm in a shark attack, had this to say about her sport: “I don’t need easy. I just need possible.”
There are plenty of people working on “possible” right now. Michigan Sea Grant is part of a national network of more than 30 university-based Sea Grant programs in coastal states across the country, administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) is a groundbreaking task force of 11 federal agencies working on the lakes’ most urgent environmental issues. Michigan has already leveraged state and local funds into $163 million in GLRI funds. Off the coast of Alpena lies the nation’s only freshwater National Marine Sanctuary, protecting 4,300 square miles of Great Lakes shipping history. In 2012, the state hired John Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center at the East Lansing-based Prima Civitas Foundation, to guide our ship forward into the Blue Economy. According to Austin’s white paper commissioned by the governor’s office of the Great Lakes, water is already responsible for nearly a million jobs and $60 billion in the Michigan economy.
It’s time to quit dipping our toe in the water and jump in with both feet. We can be among those innovators out front making the waves that the whole world can ride into a prosperous and sustainable Blue future. It’s time to quit looking back, and start sailing ahead.
Like Christopher Columbus said: “You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
* This blog is adapted from my column in The Review.