Protecting Michigan’s waters: What can you do?

Individuals can have a positive impact on water quality and quantity by changing some actions to reduce stormwater.

This diagram shows the difference in root length between native vs non-native plants.
This diagram shows the difference in root length between native vs non-native plants.

Michigan is a state defined by water. According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan has “more than 11,000 inland lakes, 76,000 miles of rivers, 6.5 million acres of wetlands and more than 3,200 miles of freshwater coastline.

It is not a stretch to say that water is one of Michigan’s greatest assets. While Michigan has a seemingly endless supply of clean water, it still faces many threats. It is up to us to protect these precious resources from potential impairments where we can.

Two of the many ways in which our waters are threatened are impervious cover and stormwater runoff. Impervious cover is any surface that does not allow for the infiltration of water back into the landscape and the recharge of groundwater. Some examples are human-made structures such as rooftops, driveways, roads, compacted soils and certain types of lawns and golf courses. The implications of impervious cover on our waterways are not only on water quantity, but also water quality. As stormwater runs over impervious surfaces, it picks up pollutants and carries them to water bodies through stormwater drains or ditches, thereby depositing contaminants, such as oil and grease from pavement, pesticides, or nutrients from excess fertilization.

As bleak as this sounds, there are numerous, simple changes you can do as an individual to make long-term differences. One of the easiest ways is through native landscape design. This approach to landscaping has many benefits, such as reducing the amount of turf grass and supporting water resources in several ways.

Native plants, because they are adapted to local climate, flourish with little maintenance throughout the season, thus reducing the impact on water resources. Native plants require less watering because they evolved locally and adapted to the climate. Their roots extend deeper into the soil than turf grass; therefore, they are heartier, more drought resistant, and absorb more water. This helps stabilize soils, reduces runoff and erosion, and requires less watering. Less watering means more water left in streams and the ground.

Since we’re mentioning water quality, native plants require little to no fertilizer or pesticides. Reducing fertilizer and pesticide use decreases the amount of chemicals and nutrients entering waterways. On average, homeowners nationwide use 67 million pounds of pesticides annually on lawns and 40-60 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorous used to fertilize lawns ends up in ground and surface waters, according to the EPA. These excess nutrients can lead to harmful algal blooms, such as the recent events in Lake Erie around Toledo.

Native landscaping can be used everywhere as well. For example, in wetter areas such as Michigan, you can install a rain garden in your yard. Rain gardens help absorb stormwater slowly, so as not to contribute to runoff. This slow infiltration prevents flooding, erosion, and non-point source pollution associated with urban runoff.

Urban stormwater runoff collects pollutants, such as excess nutrients and oil and grease and enters our waterways in many locations, but primarily through stormwater drains. Stormwater collects in and runs along curbs to these drains which ultimately end up in our local waterways. By reducing runoff through native landscaping or reducing pollutants entering the drains by sweeping up yard clippings, you are helping to protect Michigan’s precious water resources.

Another activity to help protect our waters is by contacting your municipality to inquire about water-related policies and ordinances and their education and outreach requirements for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits. As a homeowner, you can engage your homeowner association or neighborhood in volunteer efforts. For example, you can mark local stormwater drains with the message “Do not dump – drains to local waterways” to raise awareness and help reduce pollution.

While there are many challenges facing Michigan’s vast water supply, it is important to keep in mind there are many things you can do as an individual to help protect the asset that literally defines our State. Here are few additional suggestions to consider:

  • Proper disposal of hazardous and toxic materials
  • Rain barrels
  • Water conservation practices

For information on specific native plants, see Michigan State University Extension bulletin E-2973 “Attracting Beneficial Insects with Native Flowering Plants” or by visiting your local MSU Extension office.

The Michigan State University Extension has a number of articles on rain gardens, rain barrels and hardscaping alternatives.

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