Michigan Tech, Yale Will Study Great Lakes Water

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

Without water, the world as we know it would grind to a halt. Individuals, animals and plants, farmers and manufacturers all rely on water—for production, for transportation, for life itself. But what is water’s real and future value to our economy and society?

Scientists at Michigan Technological University and Yale University have received a grant of nearly $2 million from the National Science Foundation to analyze the quantity, quality and availability of water in the Great Lakes region. The universities will collaborate on the interdisciplinary research over the next five years.

“We will gather data, analyze it and try to predict what could happen to water use and water quality over the next 10, 20 or 30 years,” said Alex Mayer, director of the Michigan Tech Center for Water and Society, part of the University’s Sustainable Futures Institute. “This research is a good fit for Michigan Tech; the Great Lakes are our backyard.”

Mayer’s co-investigators at Michigan Tech are Qiong Zhang, a senior research engineer and operations manager of the Sustainable Futures Institute; James Mihelcic, a professor of civil and environmental engineering; and David Watkins, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“Interdisciplinary research on pressing environmental problems is one of the things that Michigan Tech does best,” said David Reed, vice president for research. “We are very proud to receive this grant for collaborative research with Yale.”

Co-investigators at Yale are Julie Zimmerman, assistant director for research at the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, and Sheila Olmstead from Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

The researchers will develop computer models that describe the flow of water in the Great Lakes watershed, including the lakes themselves, rivers and streams that feed the lakes and groundwater. They will also work to discover where and how the water is being used.

As people leave the cities and move to the suburbs and the country, they affect the water cycle, Mayer pointed out. “Changing from cropland to paved roads means more runoff and less water in the ground,” he explained.

Another important but often-overlooked factor is the role of energy in water use. “It requires a significant use of energy on a large scale to get water from its source to its use,” Mayer said, “and with the cost of energy going up and up, it’s an important consideration.”

Many people think that the Great Lakes contain an infinite amount of water. “But the replacement or renewal rate is very low,” said Mayer. Water that evaporates or flows into outlets is replaced at a rate of less than 1 percent per year. “That’s like having the bathtub draining faster than the faucet can run,” Mayer remarked.

Mayer hopes the research will produce a model for evaluating the quantity, quality and cost of water that can be applied all over the world. “The Great Lakes are water-rich, but what we learn will be applicable where there is less water and more use, such as the Sonoran desert in Mexico,” the professor of geological and mining engineering and sciences said.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.