Managing water wisely

Bluewater Bridge

Bluewater Bridge

As an environmental historian, Dr. Daniel Macfarlane specializes in interdisciplinary freshwater policy and sustainability issues, particularly the transnational aspects of Canadian-American border waters and environmental relations in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin.

Macfarlane, assistant professor of environment and sustainability, aims to create sustainable interactions between the environment and society through his work. “The goal is to arrive at balanced and appropriate regulations, governance and uses of water that allow humanity to thrive without detracting from the rest of the planet’s ability to do the same,” he says. “Freshwater policy in many ways needs to come before other policies, because human society is impossible on even the most basic levels without safe water supplies.”

Macfarlane describes freshwater usage and policy as “ground zero” for the environment, public health and the economy, and says the long-term costs of failing to protect water are much greater than the short-term costs of investing in safe water.

“In places like Michigan, tourism and recreation are obviously tied to clean water, but most industrial developments would be impossible without it,” he says. “All forms of electricity and power generation require copious amounts of water and we can’t grow food without clean water. The automobile industry requires access to water and, locally, Kalamazoo’s paper mill history is inseparable from water.”

With water policy so critical to the health, environment and economy of Michigan and the Great Lakes, Macfarlane notes the dangers of poor regulation and the negative impacts that can result when those policies are flawed. “Public health is an obvious concern. Just look at the Flint water crisis and what is happening with PFAS in southwest Michigan,” he says, referring to the state’s current contamination issues caused by the common chemical substances perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS).

“These types of issues are under the purview of federal, state and municipal water policies. Given the importance of the transnational Great Lakes to Michigan, international water policies involving Canada also come into play,” he adds. “A thriving economy requires access to safe water, but economic issues of water also run the danger of commodifying, using up or polluting this water.”

To learn more about WMU researchers' work in freshwater science and sustainability, view the 2018 Arts and Sciences Magazine.