Metro Detroit's Watery Future

It took an economic drought to discover water. And it was all around us.

Founded because of its strategic waterways, cultivated because of its fish, wildlife and other natural resources, and industrialized because of the abundance of water for coolant and transportation, this Great Lakes state is only beginning to tap the potential of the largest body of fresh water in the world as an energy source, as a lesson in environmental management, and as a corridor for maritime commerce and leisure.

"We're at the center point of being experts on how we treat the water," says Kent Anderson, a landscape architect and principal of the Detroit firm Hamilton Anderson Associates. The firm has done considerable work in waterfront landscape design. "As we deal with the economic issues (in Michigan) how we treat water issues feeds into attracting the next generation of leaders. Water and access to water is a tremendous recreational tool."

He notes that aquaculture, specifically fish farming, offers potential. Anderson is hopeful that Michigan will assume a leadership role in water development, but "we should be a lot bolder and smarter."

Water, water everywhere...

Having the longest coastline of any state other than Alaska is a "huge resource," says John Kerr, director of business development for the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, which oversees 29 ports along the Detroit River. "Are we really maximizing this resource?" he asks.

The Port Authority is one of eight ports in the nation to receive special project status within a Maritime Highway Corridor, which provides technical assistance for developing channels of tourism and commerce on the lakes. Initial development will examine the feasibility of a Detroit to Windsor ferry. Eventually, Kerr sees the possibility of Detroit to Toronto and Detroit to Montreal connections, given that the Port of Detroit has a U.S. Customs station.

There are also smaller "port-to-port" cruise initiatives under discussion, notes Mary Bohling, extension educator, Urban Southeast District, Michigan Sea Grant. "Economic development authorities are refocusing people on coastal tourism," she says.  

The Lake St. Clair Water Trail, a 45-mile kayak and canoe course developed by Michigan Sea Grant, will be inaugurated on Aug. 30 in New Baltimore. Sam Lovall, a landscape architect and environmental advocate who designed the course, says Southeast Michigan waterways are becoming far more user-friendly.

Landscaping and re-engineering shorelines in Southeast Michigan has given firms like Hamilton Anderson an edge on international business, notes Lovall, a onetime employee of the firm. Two years ago, while working for the firm, he went on a trade mission to China. Hamilton Anderson took second in an international competition to design a project on the Pi River in Lu'an City.

Michigan is poised to achieve prominence as an innovator with water-related innovation, but it remains "somewhat of an underground effort," Lovall says.     

Watering our entrepreneurial opportunities                                                             

Anyone who has experienced the Great Lakes waterways is well-aware of their powerful currents. Michael Bernitsas, Ph.D., a University of Michigan researcher, developed VIVACE, a hydrokinetic device that converts water current into electric energy. He is testing it in the St. Clair River and hopes to eventually market the device for fresh water applications.

"Developing something in the marine environment is pretty challenging," notes Bernitsas, an expert in offshore engineering. "The motion environment is really harsh."

Why isn't there more water-based technological research? Bernitsas says that despite waves of energy crises, "We have enough relatively inexpensive energy at this point, or maybe we don't appreciate how expensive it is in some ways to use fossil fuels."

Carol Miller, Ph.D., one of the organizers of "MIH20bjective: Research Shaping Michigan's Water Future," a conference at Wayne State University on Sept. 29-30, says scholars in Michigan are making original and impactful contributions to understanding and maximizing the potential of the water resource. The H20 conference is designed to promote collaboration among the three major state universities in the University Research Corridor for developing more national and international water initiatives.

What distinguishes Southeast Michigan research is that many of the technologies are being tested in the environment. "There are a lot of universities doing fundamental investigations in these areas, but there are far fewer universities doing the piloting and application of new technologies. Here in Michigan there's a real aggressive attitude toward piloting and putting to market."

Dr. Miller's research is focused on the interrelationship between water and energy: how to distribute fresh water to people while minimizing energy use, and how to manage the extensive water needs of industry. She also researches the impact of land use on water quality.

According to the State of Michigan Water Technology Initiative, there are six major water and wastewater projects in Michigan and 75 active academic research projects under way involving water, about half at Southeastern Michigan universities. A new water technology research center is under development at Detroit's TechTown. The New Economy Initiative just made the midtown incubator the administrator of a $30,000 planning grant.
The Water Technology Initiative hopes to meet the entrepreneurial needs of business while protecting the natural resource, notes Gil Pezza, sector development director for water technologies at the MEDC. "By focusing on the technology side, we distinguish ourselves from our competition -- the other states on the Great Lakes and the Canadian province of Ontario."

"Our initiative leverages the state's extensive R&D and advanced manufacturing capabilities and, specifically, the Michigan academic assets in water/wastewater research."

Because of the natural abundance of water and the need to manage industrial wastewater, Michigan is an ideal place for applied research and new development, he says. "You talk about economic gardening. This is a garden that can grow without water."

Pezza cites three innovative local companies working with water technologies: Miya, an Israeli company in Farmington Hills, works with urban water efficiency; Ambient Energy, a Birmingham company, is building a prototype to extrapolate water from air; and Zeroplex, a Norwegian company also in Birmingham, generates power by converting the pressure of water flows into electrical power.

In addition, H2Opportunites, a statewide water business accelerator, has been established in Oakland County.

Row, row your boat...
A state known for being a national leader in boat ownership is just beginning to experiencing kayaking. Eight years ago, kayaking in the Detroit River was for eccentrics, and there wasn't a shop to buy kayaks or gear. Tiffany and Peter VanDeHey established Riverside Kayak in Wyandotte, began providing guided kayak tours of the lower Detroit River, and eventually expanded to Trenton and the east side of Detroit.

"The Great Lakes are inland seas," Tiffany VanDeHey says. "They have a lot of conditions the oceans would have."

Demand has grown considerably since starting the business, she adds.  From selling 35 kayaks a year, they now sell as many as 350. And they provide guided river tours for nearly 500 people per year. "When we first opened people didn't think you could kayak on the Detroit River. There was a lot of fear. ... It's amazing, paddling in the Detroit River, the nature that you see, the industry, the historical aspects of certain areas. I've paddled all over the world and this is one of the top places to paddle."

The lower Detroit River represents some of the most progressive public-private environmental restoration projects in the world; much of it under the auspices of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including the 5,763-acre Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which includes a 50-mile greenway trail to Lake Erie Metropark.

"Water is going to be the new oil," predicts Refuge Manager John Hartig. He has supervised 41 projects along the river. He contends that there is significant water innovation in the region's urban areas, particularly along the Rouge River, which he says is the first urban river in the nation to have all of its bordering communities required to have storm water permits.

Are we a leader in water innovation? "In general, we are not," says Hartig. However, the region is well-known for soft-shore engineering, converting industrial land to natural habitat, restoring riverbeds and wetlands, and reconstructing fish habitat.

From harnessing the power of water, to preserving it and playing in it, the state once known as the "water wonderland" is poised to become the "water innovator."

But folks are still testing the waters.

Dennis Archambault is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Metromode, Model D and Concentrate.
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