Get ready, MI... flood events are becoming more common
Water is part of Michigan's identity. But when that water gets in our basements and blocks our roads, the aftermath can be devastating. The city of Midland flooded due to aging and neglected infrastructure. Intense rainfall in metro Detroit led to catastrophic flooding in 2021. Rapidly melting snow caused flooding in the Upper Peninsula earlier this spring, and climate experts say flooding events are becoming increasingly common.
Mike Shriberg is the Director of Engagement at the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) and Michigan Sea Grant.
He joined Michigan Radio's Katheryne Friske on Morning Edition to talk about what Michigan, and individual Michiganders, can do to prepare for and prevent future flooding.
Katheryne Friske: What do we know about the relationship between climate change and flooding events?
Mike Shriberg: We know that climate change is causing an increase in flooding events, and that's because it's increasing both the frequency and the intensity of severe storms over time.
"Climate change is causing an increase in flooding events, and that's because it's increasing both the frequency and the intensity of severe storms over time."Mike Shriberg, Director of Engagement at The Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research and Michigan Sea Grant
I mean, it is interesting here in Michigan, because, you know, if you look at maps of climate "safe havens" in the U.S., they generally center right on Michigan because of our access to freshwater, because of our mild climate to begin with. But that doesn't mean that Michigan is immune to the impacts of climate change. And what we're talking about here today is probably the most visible of those, the increase in flooding.
KF: And how are communities in Michigan preparing for these increasing flood events?
MS: I actually think communities have largely not been as prepared as they could be because climate change is happening quicker than many of the predictions and it's hard to change some of the basic infrastructure.
But, you know, one of the best things that we can be doing is build resiliency to floods from the ground up, and that means restoring our natural flood absorption systems. That's wetlands, that's native plants, that's areas that can actually take up floodwaters before they become a problem.
And we're seeing more communities turn towards that. But we're going to have to increase this very substantially as the impacts of climate change continue to accelerate.
KF: Can you give an example of a community that's doing these things currently?
MS: Yeah, I think about Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids has had some problems with flooding, as many communities have. But they are going systematically through some of the watersheds there and saying, well, where are the areas — where are particularly low lying areas — where we can put in more green infrastructure that restores some of the natural capacity? And, by the way, build places where people are going to want to go and recreate, as well as build wildlife habitat, while decreasing the flooding risks.
And that can happen at the micro scale, so home by home. So if you put in a rain garden in your home, your basement is far less likely to flood.
"If you put in a rain garden in your home, your basement is far less likely to flood."Mike Shriberg, Director of Engagement at The Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research and Michigan Sea Grant
And that can happen at the larger scale. Whereas if we have areas and rebuild wetlands in the natural capacity, then the whole region might be less likely to flood.
KF: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 800 billion gallons of untreated sewage is released into the nation's waters every year, due in part to intense rain and snowfall. What can that mean for Michigan?
MS: It means worse water quality.
It's the number one reason why beaches can be closed in the summer. And of course that has impacts not just on personal recreation, but on the economy of the region. It has impacts on people's health. When this gets into drinking water, people get sick more often, to put it mildly.
And so those are some of the things that happen when basically our ability to treat water gets overwhelmed by this increase that we're seeing in heavy precipitation events. Treatment plants only have so much capacity.
And when we're seeing storms that used to come every hundred years and [come] sometimes every year now, the systems weren't designed to handle all that.
And the less contaminated the water is when it gets to our drinking water treatment plants, the better off we are. So we always want to be thinking upstream about removing some of that pollution.
KF: Well, there's some climate legislation on the table in Lansing that one study says will create 160,000 jobs, it will reduce average household energy costs, save billions on health care. Would those bills do anything for flood preparedness?
MS: The best thing that we in Michigan can do to reduce risks is actually to reduce climate change pollution.
"The best thing that we in Michigan can do to reduce risks is actually to reduce climate change pollution."Mike Shriberg, Director of Engagement at The Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research and Michigan Sea Grant
The fact that Michigan now has the most serious set of climate legislation that's come around in the state and, you know, Michigan playing a leadership role in this, and acquiring the extraordinary amount of jobs that come from that, is going to be really important for preventing the climate change pollution in the first place.
Which is ultimately the cause that we're seeing of the increased precipitation.
Communities now have more dollars coming in to help them deal with infrastructure needs related to flooding than has ever been done before. And we're seeing movement now on actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Both those things give me hope over the long term.
Editor's note: Quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full interview near the top of this page.