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Michigan Sustainability Cases


Michigan Sustainability Cases tell stories of real-world problems with no obvious solutions. Our cases are co-designed by teams of students, faculty, and practitioners to widen participation in solving environment and sustainability issues.



Watershed Nutrient Management- How should we manage phosphorus loads in the Western Basin of Lake Erie?



Reducing phosphorus loads and controlling harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie will require the coordinated effort of thousands of stakeholders to improve the quality of shared water resources.

Eutrophication, most often attributed to excess nutrients (primarily phosphorus), is an increasingly common problem in coastal marine and freshwater ecosystems. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) between the US and Canada in 1972 and The Federal Clean Water Act of 1972, together, led to great water quality improvements in Lake Erie. However, there have been recent increases in the extent and duration of harmful algae blooms and hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions. This increased eutrophication is threatening human health and aquatic life and leads to drinking water contamination and fish kills. In an effort to mitigate these effects the binational 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement led to establishing a target of reducing Phosphorus loads in Lake Erie by 40% of their 2008 levels by 2025. The management and implementation of conservation efforts involves many stakeholders and how this effort should be coordinated remains largely unclear. Efforts thus far include federal funding for the implementation of agricultural best management practices, attempts to designate and regulate distressed watersheds and innovative water quality trading programs.

Learning objectives
- Recognize the causes and consequences of eutrophication
- Compare historical and current eutrophication
- Consider varied contributions to Phosphorus loading as well as the interests of varied       stakeholders and jurisdictions
- Evaluate the multiple pathways and scenarios which can reduce phosphorus loads
- Design an implementation plan to meet water quality goals




Invasive Control- How do we mitigate the impacts of Sea Lamprey invasions in the Great Lakes?



A blood-sucking parasite has been ravaging Great Lakes fishes. Control of the invasive Sea Lamprey costs millions of dollars annually and relies upon extensive pesticide applications and barriers to migration. After 60 years of control efforts, is this still the best strategy?

Sea Lamprey are a parasitic fish with a complex life cycle; they spawn in tributaries and then transform into a parasitic adult which targets and kills fish, including Lake Trout. The decline of commercially important fishes, following the introduction of Sea Lamprey to the Great Lakes, led to a binational agreement forming the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) in 1955. For more than 60 years, the GLFC Sea Lamprey program has controlled lamprey populations in each of the Great Lakes by application of chemical lampricide to tributaries. The number of tributaries requiring treatment is also limited by barriers to migration. There are more than 180 introduced species in the Great Lakes basin and Sea Lamprey are the only invader controlled through a coordinated basin wide effort. Recognizing the limitations and expense associated with current control methods, GLFC also supports the research and development of alternative control methods. Sea Lamprey control has been important in the rehabilitation of native Great Lakes fish populations and supports the regional economy valued at more than $7 billion annually. It is clear that Sea Lamprey control must be maintained, but is there a strategy that will reduce costs, improve effectiveness, and ensure future control?

Learning objectives
- Recognize the costs to Great Lakes fisheries which are associated with Sea Lamprey invasions
- Compare various Sea Lamprey control methods and identify their benefits and drawbacks
- Examine trends in Sea Lamprey Status within and across lakes
- Evaluate the success and sustainability of Sea Lamprey control
- Contrast this case with other invasive species management in the Great Lakes Region




Addressing the Worst of the Worst sites- Clarifying roles among actors working to clean up Great Lakes Areas of Concern 



Learning objectives
- Understand the origin and operational components of the Great Lakes AOCs Program.
- Consider roles and relationships of the various actors in implementing this Program.
- Consider the unique perspectives and constraints of these various actors.
- Appreciate the complexities of implementing a large-scale governmental program that requires   local engagement.



Green vs. Gray- What is the best path to sustainable stormwater management in Washtenaw County?



Residents demand that the county address flooding from stormwater, but responding to development and climate change means balancing “gray” and “green” techniques.

As climate change, population growth, and urban sprawl exacerbate runoff problems, cities are forced to provide the capacity to handle increasing volumes of stormwater. Traditionally, stormwater has been displaced through engineered, “gray” infrastructure systems capable of rapidly relocating massive volumes of water from areas at risk. Historically, however, this has led to a variety of problems, including water quality and quantity, polluting rivers and streams, overwhelming natural drainage systems, and depleting aquifers. Green infrastructure has been lauded as the solution, but the approach faces a variety of barriers to widespread adoption. Michigan’s Washtenaw County faces its own mounting stormwater management problems and Harry Sheehan, Chief Deputy Water Resources Commissioner for Washtenaw County, has been charged crafting a response. To succeed, he will have to find the right balance green and gray approaches.

Learning objectives
- Identify the stages of the natural water cycle and how the urban water cycle changes this cycle
- Identify a variety of green infrastructure forms
- Identify the phases of stormwater management evolution
- Understand drivers for green infrastructure adoption from government, private residential, and   business perspectives.
- Create an innovative approach to advance local green infrastructure practices
- Evaluate the pros and cons of the innovative residential Master Rain Gardener’s training program



A Radioactive Decision- Should DTE Energy build a new nuclear reactor in Michigan?


Given regulatory pressures to reduce GHG emissions, DTE Energy must decide if nuclear power is a viable option to cleanly meet expected energy demand.

In the midst of aggressive carbon reduction targets and regulations, Michigan will be forced to retire several coal plants. In order for Michiganders to keep their lights on, the displaced energy capacity from retired coal plants must be replaced by something—but what is the best option? DTE Energy grapples with this question, and considers their options. They have a permit to build Fermi III—a new nuclear reactor—which could provide reliable electricity with effectively zero carbon emissions, but there are many other factors to consider: federal and state policies, nuclear energy trends, construction times, financial and environmental burdens, and fierce public opposition.

Gerard Anderson, CEO of DTE Energy, asks his analysts to compile a report on all of these factors, and uses the information to consider three options for DTE Energy moving forward: (1) build Fermi III, (2) build new natural gas fired generation, or (3) build new wind and solar with natural gas generation to integrate these variable resources. Mr. Anderson considers each option carefully, knowing that his decision will impact millions of Michigan residents, and for multiple decades.

Learning objectives
- Clearly comprehend and communicate some of the most controversial aspects of nuclear power plants, such as policy considerations, economics, environmental impacts, security/safety, and grid integration
- Have a general understanding of various energy generation technologies and their implications for grid integration: nuclear, coal, natural gas, solar, and wind
- Calculate and analyze the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) and Levelized Avoided Cost of Energy (LACE) for three different electricity generation scenarios
- Analyze and assess the complexities associated with nuclear generation through context on the following: regulatory and policy concerns environmental and safety risks, and public opposition groups



Farming in Motown- Is the future of Detroit food provisioning and access home-grown?



The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) is one of several urban farms that are trying to increase local production and food access in a bankrupt city.

Detroit, birthplace of the American automobile industry and the City of Motown, has lost hundreds of thousands of tax-paying residents over the past several decades. The resulting hollowed-out neighborhoods have come to resemble what some have called the “urban prairie.” The residents who remain struggle with food insecurity, due in large part to a lack of local grocery stores and other sources of fresh, healthy food nearby. With so much vacant land (about 30,000 acres), many people, both residents and outsiders, believe the future of Detroit includes an outsized role for urban agriculture. The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative (MUFI) is one of many groups trying to increase local food security, improve diets, and support nutritional literacy by engaging local residents in sustainable agriculture. They have faced and continue to face considerable obstacles, including the wariness (and weariness) Detroit residents often feel towards would-be do-gooders from outside of the city. Their chief problem today is to secure the land they have been cultivating and preserve their legacy in the North End neighborhood, which is threatened by renewed interest in high-end housing and commercial development ahead of construction on a new rail line. The city needs such economic development to bring jobs and prosperity to its residents but, at least in this case, that goal seems to be at odds with the goals of building stronger communities and improving food security and public health.




Souring Climate- Can Michigan tart cherry growers adapt to a changing climate?


As earlier blooms expose cherries to frost, an industry searches for a solution.

A young tart cherry grower, Frank, is looking to get started in the business and continue a family tradition in Leelanau County, where fruit growing is a way of life. Growing cherries has always been a risky business, but changes to the industry and an increasingly variable climate have compounded that risk. Frank faces a number of decisions that will impact his success in the long run, but only if he can stay afloat long enough to get there. Meanwhile, an entire specialty industry contemplates how to respond to change. Readers will explore adaptation and vulnerability to environmental change, and examine how these processes affect individuals and the industry as a whole.



The All-Too-Common Reed- How can an urban wildlife refuge sustainably manage the invasive reed Phragmites?

Managers at the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which has a history of disturbance but also of strong community support and collaboration, must decide how best to address the problem of a widespread wetland invasive plant.

The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge is a collection of wetlands, marshes, and waterfront: 6,000 acres of protected natural area nestled into the urban expanse of metro Detroit, home to more than seven million people. Like many other natural areas across the country, the Refuge struggles with invasive species, in particular the ubiquitous invasive reed Phragmites australis, and has been devoting considerable attention, time, and resources to its management.

A University of Michigan investigator visited the Refuge in 2017 to understand why, despite the $4.6 million spent on management nationwide, Phragmites continues to dominate landscapes, and to explore why the efficacy of current strategies remains unpredictable and uncertain. Other management strategies are under study, but land managers like the Refuge’s wildlife biologist Greg Norwood are making management decisions every day, leaving Greg to consider: what is the future of Phragmites management along the Detroit River?

Learning objectives
- Identify the impacts and causes of an invasive species
- Apply the concept of the fundamental vs. realized niche to the distributions of invasive and native species
- Identify how different management and land use strategies affect the dynamics of nutrients and  biomass across the landscape
- Systematically assess management alternatives based on multiple sources of evidence and  identification of costs, benefits, and uncertainties
- Recognize how collaborative decision-making takes multiple stakeholder perspectives, values, and structures into account and may increase capacity but also involve conflicts
- Illustrate the difference between species-centric, local-scale, short-term management and  longterm, large-scale, ecosystem-based management approaches



Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network- How can an adaptation network sustain effective partnerships for climate adaptation?


Coproducing climate information improves Great Lakes cities' adaptation to climate change, but how can these partnerships be sustained long-term?

Cities around the Great Lakes increasingly face the impacts of climate change, from more frequent and intense storms to increased high heat days. But as city managers begin to prepare plans to adapt to these changes, they struggle to find the right types of climate data to inform their decision-making. The information generated by universities and research institutes is not translating into action on the ground. This case study shares a successful model that has linked a number of organizations together to provide Great Lakes cities with the information they need to adapt. It highlights the formation of the Great Lakes Climate Adaptation Network (GLCAN) and the development of a common “Vulnerability Assessment” template that combines climate and socioeconomic data to help communities identify vulnerable populations and infrastructure. By sharing lessons learned and emerging questions, this case provides insights into the organizational structures that can help connect producers of environmental information with those who need the information to make decisions and better plan for the future.



Dioxane Plume Pollution- Who should deal with the groundwater contamination in a university town?


Actors from the local to national level deliberate about limited remediation where cleanup is costly.

A local Ann Arbor industry severely contaminated the aquifer beneath the city with a carcinogenic chemical, 1,4-dioxane, decades ago. Since then, the chemical plume has continued to migrate through the city and county, contaminating local lakes and private drinking water wells, while en route to the city’s drinking water supply. The state’s consent decree with the industry may not be protective of wildlife and citizens. To some, the federal, state and local response to the ecological and public health risks has been disappointing. Local advocacy has challenged authorities to resolve the issue. Some say designating the site as one of the nation’s worst (i.e., a Superfund site) could force a better cleanup, while others fear that labeling Ann Arbor as a toxic site could bring negative consequences such as decreased property values. What should be done?

Learning objectives
- Identify stakeholders and their competing perspectives surrounding the groundwater  contamination in Ann Arbor.
- Develop a “weight-of-evidence” based risk assessment that utilizes key, but different, types of  data, such as: groundwater chemistry defining the plume, movement of the plume through time,  drinking water wells impacted and potentially impacted, ecologically sensitive areas, and  groundwater criteria exceedances for 1,4-dioxane.
- Identify uncertainties that exist with regard to environmental and public health risks. Determine  how these uncertainties can be reduced.
- Critique a policy by identifying and evaluating the impact of both intentional and unintended  consequences of Superfund site designation. Formulate possible solutions and argue a case for the  solution you think is best, while considering its cost-effectiveness and the role costs will have on  whether action will be taken.




Wolf Wars- Should we hunt gray wolves in Michigan?


The wolf population has rebounded in Northern MI; now some are advocating to open hunting season again.

This case study details an active issue in the state of Michigan: whether or not to allow a public wolf hunt. The chairperson of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, J.R. Richardson, faces a difficult decision. Once an endangered species, gray wolves have recovered in northern Michigan enough that some groups are pushing for a public wolf hunt. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources agrees and believes that a limited public hunt is scientifically and economically justified. But others are not convinced and have reacted with skepticism and hostility. What should the chairperson’s decision be? This case asks that you examine the issue from opposing, nuanced perspectives, and be guided by scientific, political, economic, and social analysis. Ultimately, you will be expected to make a responsible, sustainable policy recommendation on Michigan’s wolf population.




Controlled Dam Removal- Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t: should Pellston remove its historic dam?


The Little Traverse Conservancy has just acquired the Maple River Dam and Lake Kathleen, and must decide whether to retain the dam as part of a new nature preserve.

In Pellston, Michigan, the Maple River Dam has existed for more than 100 years. After a long history of dam breaks, attempted repairs, and subsequent lack of maintenance and monitoring, the Maple River Dam may no longer serve the Pellston community effectively. Conservation groups, local residents, Native American tribes, and others are making the case that removing the dam as soon as possible will prevent a dam break that could cause irreparable damage to the surrounding habitats and watersheds. Other stakeholders argue that removing the dam, which would result in the elimination of Lake Kathleen, would devastate endangered plant species that lie below the dam, would create a pathway for invasive species, and would deprive Pellstonites of a treasured recreational resource. Multiple parties are in conflict over the prospect of a dam removal, but Taylor James, the Land Protection and Stewardship Coordinator of Little Traverse Conservancy (LTC), must decide the dam’s future. In doing so, Taylor has to consider the differing opinions among stakeholders and ensure the best decision is made for the local community and the Lake Kathleen–Maple River ecosystem.

Learning objectives
- Understand the complex nature of the dam removal process
- Understand the many reasons why stakeholders are for or against dam removal
- Identify a d.a.m. and understand how it is a physical disturbance to the surrounding ecology
- Apply the ecological implications of a local d.a.m. (population, biodiversity, flow, and productivity)  to this case
- Understand the implications of dams and dam removal on aquatic habitats
- Explain the basic ecology of a stream system and understand how different types of  impoundments alter that ecology
- Understand the techniques that aquatic ecologists use to measure, and explain how aquatic  ecosystems function
- Describe how the physical effects of flow impact and structure aquatic ecosystems