New Great Lakes climate change report suggests green infrastructure could help address equity issues

Climate change is becoming an increasingly real issue for the Great Lakes states, but not every place in the region is facing the same risks from its impact. A new report finds that the area's large urban centers, including Metro Detroit, are now being confronted with significant climate challenges, but also stand to benefit from prudent investment in green infrastructure. And the results of the study may have some important implications for addressing social justice concerns.

Released last month by the Resilient Infrastructure Sustainable Communities (RISC), a Great Lakes Protection Funded coalition, the Climate Risks and Opportunities in the Great Lakes Region report, looks at 653 counties in the eight Great Lakes states, with a particular focus on the 216 counties surrounding the Great Lakes Basin. 

Analyzing factors like flood risk, impervious surfaces, unemployment rates, density of skilled workers, health, vulnerability of local populations, and financing capacity, the study compiled more than 100,000 data points to determine the overall readiness of different areas to put in place the sort of green stormwater initiatives that could lead to climate resiliency. Elements of that infrastructure include things like comprehensive tree plantings, as well as bioswales, and rain gardens, which can collect rainwater and allow it to soak into the ground.

Dr. Sanjiv Sinha"Climate change is here and unfortunately we have no choice but to address it. But framed right, it could even be a driver for overall societal good," says Dr. Sanjiv Sinha. He's a co-author of the report and a senior vice president in charge of water resources with Environmental Consulting & Technology, Inc. (ECT), the environmental consulting and infrastructure firm spearheading the RISC coalition.
"I think in many ways the Great Lake states are lucky," he says. "Except for New York, we are much more inland, so at least we are not impacted by sea levels rising. Our challenges are due to changing rainfall intensities and related changes in ecosystems around us."

Instead of rising sea levels, the inland Great Lakes states are faced with rising waters in the Great Lakes Basin, which reached record levels in 2020 and remain at higher than average levels. Beyond that, the region is also facing increasing temperatures, heavier periods of intensive rain in the winter and spring, and decreased precipitation in the summer months.

RISC conducted its recent study to find out which cities, townships, and counties across the Great Lakes Region best fit the requirements to adopt large-scale green stormwater measures. In addition to overall suitability, the report ranked different parts of the region according to four key areas: climate risk, social vulnerability, workforce agility, and financing capacity. 

Not completely unexpectedly, the study found that urban centers were at a higher risk for flooding, due in part to the prevalence of impervious surfaces like roads and driveways. These surfaces tend to be made of concrete or asphalt and don't provide much, if any, drainage for rainfall. A higher density of development in urban centers also puts these areas in more jeopardy.

The RISC study also uncovered a connection between high climate risk areas and places where vulnerable populations live, in other words, areas where there is more income inequality and a higher concentration of people of color. Although these sites tend to be areas of historical disinvestment and structural barriers to equitable economic growth, Dr. Sinha notes that green infrastructure could provide an economic boost to these places and the people who live there.

"The regions we found had the biggest need were also very closely connected with the environmental justice areas where people of color live," he says. "So investments there can meet multiple societal goals: train their workforce and result in significant cost savings on climate-related costs for the ratepayers in these areas."

Climate Change in Metro Detroit

Like the Great Lakes region as a whole, Southeast Michigan is dealing with its own host of complications from climate change. 

Dr. Dan Brown works as a watershed planner with the Huron River Watershed Council and was formerly a climatologist with the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center (GLISA) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Although he wasn't involved with putting together the RISC report, he does have some insight on how climate change is affecting the Metro Detroit area.

"The last decade has been the wettest on record for southeast Michigan," says Dr. Brown. "It’s meant more flooded basements, more risks to roads, infrastructure, and flooded farm fields. There have been greater expenses to residents in dealing with climate change, disruption of certain regional economies, and less common but catastrophic infrastructure failures."

Dr. Brown expects to see more adverse developments in the not-to-distant future that will call into question our conventional ideas about "normal" local weather patterns. It's likely that powerful storms and severe precipitation will become more frequent and that these will occasionally be complemented with unusually dry seasons. And assuming even moderate levels of continued global warming, he believes storms as intense as the one that broke mid-Michigan's Sanford and Edenville dams last May could become up to 25 times more frequent by the end of the century. 

This situation is complicated by the fact that many Southeast Michigan communities built infrastructure like drainage systems, roads, and bridges at a time when highly damaging storms occurred less regularly.

This assessment of the regional climate situation is echoed in the results of the RISC study, in which a portion of Southeast Michigan is prominently featured. Wayne County comes in at number four on RISC's list of 20 Great Lake Basin counties deemed to be the best fit for green stormwater infrastructure. Taking into account the combined percentages of the study's four key factors—climate risk, social vulnerability, workforce agility, and financing capacity—Wayne County comes in with a composite score of 67.28%. Cuyahoga County in Ohio topped the list with a score of 70.10%.

Breaking down the math, R. Paul Herman and Noah Strouse, co-authors of the RISC report affiliated with the sustainable investment company HIP Investor, Inc., point out that Wayne County "contains a high percentage of floodable impervious surfaces (37.4%), a high percentage of the population in poor or fair health (19.1%), a high level of inequality, a strong need for new jobs (up to 11.6% unemployment), a Climate Action Plan to structure policies and projects, and multiple Mayoral Climate Pledges."

Beyond that, they believe the city of Detroit is particularly well-positioned to take advantage of green stormwater infrastructure investment. In part, this is because the Motor City is an urban area that's more susceptible to environmental risks and has a population that is more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. More positively, however, it also has a large skilled workforce, its own climate action plan, and a mayor committed to addressing climate issues.

Looking on the upside, Herman and Strouse believe that addressing climate change with targeted investments oriented towards sustainability and environmental justice will also allow areas like Detroit to tackle other pressing issues at the same time.

"Municipalities with diverse populations like Detroit have long suffered from historical disinvestment and structural disadvantages, and are strongly deserving of impactful, community-led investment to simultaneously reduce future climate risk, support vulnerable populations, generate economic prosperity, and build resilience," they say.

However, the two of them do caution that green infrastructure solutions need to be tailored to the needs of the individual communities that implement them. For example, Detroit might look to larger-scale stormwater strategies piloted by cities like Milwaukee and Buffalo and adjust them to meet local conditions.

If communities in Southeast Michigan and the broader Great Lake region can do this and adopt climate change solutions with an eye towards environmental justice, Herman and Strouse are hopeful that green infrastructure could also serve as a catalyst for a more just future. 

"With our intersectional view of the challenging issues facing many communities," they say, "we see that multi-sector collaboration and investment could provide a pathway towards a healthier, more resilient, and equitable society."

Correction: An earlier version of this article had Dr. Dan Brown speculating that storms as intense as the one that broke the Sanford and Edenville dams could become 25% percent more frequent by 2100. He actually believes they could become as much as 25 times more frequent. Dr. Brown bases this prediction on a 2020  Kirchmeier-Young and Zhang study published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" journal.

Signup for Email Alerts