Why HRWC is focused on land use
Among the Huron River’s many blessings are the forests, wetlands, and prairies that make up 44% of the watershed’s 588,000 acres. These natural lands clean polluted runoff, keep streams cool, and soak up rain, which can then infiltrate into groundwater to recharge the river and drinking wells. The City of Ann Arbor relies on the Huron River for most of its drinking water. Mature forests and wetlands also operate as a carbon sink, helping to offset greenhouse gas emissions.
These remaining natural lands are a major reason the Huron watershed is home to two-thirds of Southeast Michigan’s public recreational lands, numerous endangered and threatened species, rare ecosystems like bogs and prairies of state-wide significance, and a burgeoning trail system. Thanks to nature’s cleansing services, the Huron hosts a multi-million-dollar recreational fishery, 125,000 paddlers every year, and dozens of swimming beaches. Even more importantly, it is clean enough to provide drinking water to over 150,000 residents of the city of Ann Arbor as well as Scio and Ann Arbor townships. It feeds Lake Erie which supplies drinking water for about 11 million people. The watershed’s groundwater, filtered through natural lands, supplies water to thousands more private and community drinking water wells throughout the watershed.
Natural lands are the workhorses for clean water
Protecting natural lands is the most cost-effective strategy for maintaining clean water and healthy freshwater systems. For instance, a study by the Trust for Public Land and the American Waterworks Association of 27 drinking water systems in the United States found that protecting upstream forests and wetlands can reduce drinking water treatment costs at a rate of 20% for every 10% increase in watershed forest cover. Another study assessed the stormwater treatment value of wetlands in New York state at over half a million dollars per acre every year. The Huron River and its adjacent wetlands alone provide over $3.8 billion in ecosystem services.
Yet, these lands face continued conversion to roofs, lawns, parking lots, and roads, which robs them of their ability to provide vital ecosystem services, creating even more runoff for remaining lands to handle. Emerging contaminants like PFAS and microplastics further threaten water quality.
Unfortunately, land development continues to threaten our watershed’s natural lands. A recent study revealed that the region’s forested lands have grown increasingly fragmented between 1985 and 2015 due mainly to increased urban sprawl, interfering with the ecosystem services the watershed’s natural lands provide.
Local decisions, local control
In Michigan, local governments have the power to determine land use and protection strategies within their boundaries. Several of the watershed’s local governments have recognized the importance of land protection to the health, safety, and welfare of their residents and local water resources. In the past ten years, five property-tax (“millage”) funded land protection programs—including in Ann Arbor, Scio, and Webster townships, the city of Ann Arbor, and Washtenaw County—successfully protected about 10,000 acres of natural lands in the Huron River watershed.
Other municipalities have crafted policies in their zoning ordinances and master plans that accommodate or encourage growth that works in concert with land protection. For instance, Webster Township’s new surface water protection overlay district will protect 1,700 acres of riparian lands along 61 miles of stream in perpetuity. Webster also protected over 4,500 acres of land through their land protection property tax millage. The township master plan includes goals for continued river-friendly policies including a wetland ordinance, which would protect about 4,300 acres of wetlands.
To spread the use of these important tools throughout the 63 local governments in the watershed, HRWC offers policy and technical support to watershed communities and residents, including:
- Workshops where residents and local officials map a network of forests, wetlands, waterways, and links to connect them. They then discuss goals and how best to plan for development while protecting the natural lands network.
- A step-by-step Conservation Millage Toolkit to guide communities and local activists through the process of campaigning for and passing a millage. Watershed communities like Ann Arbor Township are finding success with millage programs.
- The guidebook, Land Use for a Healthy Watershed, which describes how land and water are connected, how local governments manage land, and what citizens can do to protect land and water at the local level.
What you can do
- The map at right shows which local governments have participated in HRWC’s workshops or adopted land protection millages. Encourage your community to run a land protection mapping workshop with HRWC or explore a millage if it has not yet done so.
- Check with your community. Has it participated in any river-friendly efforts? Investigate even further at HRWC’s Change Makers page. HRWC keeps track of local land and water protection activities in the watershed’s local governments and provides resources on how residents can advocate for river-friendly policies.
- Find out who is running in your local election and what proposals will be on the ballot.
- Washtenaw County’s land protection millage is up for renewal this November. Vote with the Huron River in mind!
Together we can ensure the protection of natural lands critical to maintaining a healthy Huron River.
This blog post was originally published September 1st in the Huron River Report, Fall 2020.