15 minutes today to help ensure freshwater for tomorrow

University of Michigan online survey about large capacity water withdrawals aims to illuminate the gap between expert and public opinion.

Children play on the shore of Lake Michigan. | Photo by Monica Day
Children play on the shore of Lake Michigan. | Photo by Monica Day

Water is a shared resource that everyone and everything depends on. Elinor Olstrom, 2009 Nobel Prize winner, showed how government-imposed rules are, more often than not, insufficient for managing shared resources. Instead, rules and rulemaking should support learning, adaptation, trust building and cooperation at multiple levels of society. In order to protect water resources, community members need to be actively involved with rulemaking and enforcement.

Here in Michigan, we have two rules that govern water availability. The Great Lakes Compact and Michigan’s Water Use Law. However, public knowledge of these laws and their enforcement is lacking. We witnessed the result of this disconnect in 2016 in the reporting about the Waukesha diversion. Under the June 21, 2016, ruling, the Great Lakes Compact was upheld when the Waukesha diversion was approved. The governors and premiers of the Great Lakes states and provinces supported the diversion because the Great Lakes Compact explicitly makes a provision for diversions from communities adjacent to the Great Lakes Watershed. Although the ruling was within the bounds of the law, it was out of step with public opinion which was not as informed about the nuances of the law.

This disconnect – between public opinion and expert opinion – is the problem that this survey seeks to address. Why was the public opposed to the Waukesha Diversion when there was unanimous agreement among the states and provinces that voted to allow it?

Great Lakes Policy Research shows most people care deeply about freshwater resources. Yet people are not always sufficiently organized or informed to participate fully in water resources protection. When it comes to managing shared resources, ordinary people need sufficient information to understand that appropriate rules will yield adequate water for everyone. Fortunately, given the right opportunity, people are willing to become more informed and take responsibility. Last month, over 70 people in one local Washtenaw County community spent their full Saturday learning about how communities can better protect water resources. Since then, Michigan State University Extension and the other program leaders have received requests for additional programs across the state.

You can help researchers and educators learn more about public opinion regarding water management by encouraging others to complete the 15 question survey. Questions about the survey can be directed to: Ivan Jayawan at ijayawan@umich.edu. The last day to complete the survey is March 15, 2017.  

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