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With all eyes on Great Lakes water, concerned researchers work to conserve it

This map shows the geographical composition of Great Lakes Basin surface freshwater and groundwater. (U.S. Geological Survey graphic)

LANSING — Fresh water is the aquatic version of treasure. It’s valuable and people really, really want it.

Access to oodles of fresh water is normal for those who live in or near the Great Lakes Basin. Its residents are close to Earth’s largest freshwater ecosystem, which formed when massive glaciers carved out lake beds, then melted.

Below the surface lie groundwater reservoirs, which link the entire watershed.

But now, as North America grapples with climate change and a rising population to feed, the agricultural industry’s interest in tapping into the region’s freshwater supply is growing.

That’s setting off alarm bells for some researchers in the United States and Canada, the two nations that economically rely on the water-rich region.

This diagram shows where Alvin Smucker's polymer "SWRT" troughs are placed to retain water at plant roots. (Credit: Alvin Smucker.)

Water without salt is the most precious natural resource on Earth, according to soil biophysicist Alvin Smucker. He said he doesn’t believe current water regulatory policies in the United States, Canada and around the world will solve humanity’s burgeoning competition for it.

“We are not very economically or environmentally sound in this country to use the amount of fresh water we have,” said Smucker, a professor emeritus at Michigan State University. “I think Canada would say the same thing.”

In most regions of the world, agriculture uses about 70% of fresh water, Smucker said. With that on his mind, he’s working on a new technology to improve soil water retention and increase crop yield.

Smucker works with soils that have trouble retaining water. To remedy this problem, he has been developing and installing polymer membranes near plant root zones that can catch moisture from rain or irrigation and hold it there.

He works with RWF BRON, an Ontario manufacturing company, to install the special U-shaped polymer troughs in sandy soils in Michigan.

It’s preventative, Smucker said. The technology was born out of his desire to increase U.S. crop yields without relying on — and possibly depleting — freshwater reservoirs, especially those in the Great Lakes region.

His innovation has a long name: Subsurface Water Retention Technologies. Smucker shortens it to SWRT, which he pronounces “swart.”

SWRT has yielded promising results so far: Trough installation led to crop yield increases in Texas, California and Arizona. Potato farmers in Manitoba are interested in the technology, too.

SWRT could curb agricultural reliance on surface fresh water and groundwater, in addition to raising crop yields, Smucker said.

A key goal of U.S. and Canadian Great Lakes policy and preservation researchers is to avoid future situations where the region’s lakes and aquifers risk running dry.

They want to avoid an Ogallala-High Plains aquifer situation. That aquifer, a colossal water source that sustains a significant agricultural region spanning from Nebraska to Texas, is being drained at unsustainable rates, even though practices have been put into place to prevent that.

Here’s the thing: Running freshwater pipelines or sending water tanks out to dry and drought-affected West and Southwest states is not yet cost-effective or sensible, said Adam Thorn, a geology and political science professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

But what happens when that changes?

“As the demographic changes in the Great Lakes, particularly on the U.S. side, we see people moving out of the so-called Rust Belt and moving into the Southwest,” Thorn said. “We see more and more demands come for this water.”

It’s hard to anticipate whether the U.S. and Canada have the governance arrangements to address those demands, he said.

“It’s really difficult to say, but my short answer would be ‘No’,” Thorn said. “We’ve seen real success stories when it comes to the Great Lakes. But (the question is) whether this sort of big, complicated system can react very quickly to serious climate change.”

Smucker said any allocations of fresh water need to proceed with caution.

“As we move forward, if we begin to do things slowly and if we do them with all restrictions needed to conserve (groundwater, living areas and lakes), then we’re going to find that we can have just as much as agriculture and the industry needs to satisfy the needs, the wants, the pleasures, of the folks in each of our political boundaries, states and countries,” Smucker said.

Young adults will bear the weight of handling freshwater distribution as the world’s population grows, he added.

Claire Moore writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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