Heartbreaking flooding shows need for infrastructure investments that slow climate change

When flash flooding broke two Midland area dams Tuesday, the hearts of Michigan Environmental Council’s staff were with the thousands of area residents who would have to leave their homes behind as high waters rushed into their communities.

The flood was the second of its size in 35 years, a result of the devastating effects of climate change and inadequate investment in resilient infrastructure. In Edenville Dam’s case, abnormally heavy rain ravaged a dam in need of repair.

To keep 500-year disasters from happening every few years, action must be taken to address what causes them. Climate change is driving more frequent and intense rainstorms across Michigan, leading to record high water levels and disastrous flooding events. 

“Stress to critical infrastructure will only intensify as the effects of climate change are realized,” said Tom Zimnicki, Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) program director of groundwater, surface water and agriculture. “Financing green and gray infrastructure projects that account for a changing climate not only make natural areas healthier, they keep communities across the state safer and Michigan’s workforce more robust.”

Job-creating infrastructure investments should happen in all areas of Michigan, rural and urban, Zimnicki said. They include renewable energy and energy waste reduction; electric vehicle charging station systems; gray and green water infrastructure systems; coal plant closures; and public transportation. 

“Our thoughts are with Midland area residents. It is clear that we are experiencing impacts of climate change and we need to get serious about implementing policies that drive down greenhouse gas emissions and help our communities adapt to the changing weather ,” said Charlotte Jameson, MEC program director of legislative affairs, drinking water and energy. “We can still avoid even worse long-term impacts if we work together to get Michigan on a path to 100% renewable energy and a fully carbon-neutral economy.”

Jennifer McKay, policy director for Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council and board member of MEC, outlined ways to protect important assets from climate change’s impacts: preparing for extreme weather events; changing land-use decision-making processes; guiding development out of flood-prone areas; improving the resiliency of shorelines, natural systems and critical infrastructure; and applying ​cost-effective green infrastructure.

“Sadly, this is yet another example of the devastating consequences of climate change in Michigan that have profound effects on many of Michigan’s citizens and the environment,” McKay said about the flood. “Individuals, communities, organizations and institutions have opportunities now to take steps to help avoid or reduce climate change consequences and protect communities from similar likely disruption and damage. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic halting the Michigan Legislature and affecting state funding, Jameson, Zimnicki and other MEC policy staff were advocating bill packages that would improve infrastructure, address climate change and create jobs. Together, the bills would kickstart a statewide electric vehicle charging station system, encourage small-scale solar panel installment and give resident renewable energy users equitable credits for their excess energy

MEC also supported Governor Whitmer’s proposed $40 million in her fiscal year 2021 budget for climate resilient infrastructure grants for local units of government to help plan for and prevent the negative impacts of Michigan’s changing climate conditions.