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Massive rainfall events aren't going away in Michigan. Experts say our infrastructure needs to adapt

Montgomery Drain Project Example
Posted at 5:41 PM, Aug 24, 2021

LANSING, Mich. — Since 1986, total annual precipitation across most of Michigan's lower peninsula has increased by more than 10 percent.

It's not surprising when you think of the heavy rain events we've seen in the summer of 2021 alone.

Many Michiganders may be paying attention to these events for the first time because they're finally affecting their everyday life, but Ingham County Drain Commissioner Patrick Lindemann says he's been watching and predicting the increase in extreme rain events for a while.

"We've noticed changes for the last 35 to 40 years," Lindemann said. "I can tell you right now, if you want to declare war on water, water will always win."

Michigan's highways, storm sewers and dams are built based on old assumptions about how much rain they would have to handle: less than we have now.

The question is how we adapt.

"We have to look at the impacts of it, we have to start to plan to rebuild our infrastructure to accommodate," said Lindemann, who has been Ingham County's drain commissioner since 1992. "Otherwise, we're going to suffer great losses in the future, catastrophic losses."

He says the frequency of these rain events was increasing gradually in the early 2000s, but now it's increasing much quicker.

"We used to have rain events that were kind of drizzly all day, and they would run for two or three days," Lindemann said. "And now we have micro-bursts, we have five inches of rain within one square mile that used to be over 30 square miles."

Climate experts across Michigan have predicted and taken note of heavier rains.

Kate Madigan, Director of Michigan Climate Action

Kate Madigan is the director of Michigan Climate Action, she said; "I think the most helpful way to think about it is how some scientists compare climate change in weather events to a baseball player on steroids. The atmosphere essentially is on steroids where we've seen warming globally of 1.1 degrees Celsius so far, which doesn't sound like much on a day, that shift and change. But on a global scale, that's a lot of energy that is trapped in the atmosphere. Warmer air holds more moisture, so that means there's more rainfall available at rain events."

Lindemann says to "adapt" by building bigger sewer pipes would take billions of dollars that our communities simply don't have,

So his strategy is to rethink how we handle excess water altogether.

Michigan infrastructure is designed to get rid of excess water from these micro-bursts as quickly as possible by moving the water into the Great Lakes. Lindemann says we should be doing the opposite.

For the past 20 years as drain commissioner, Lindemann has been re-working watersheds and creating wetlands and ponds. The Montgomery Drain Project underway near Frandor Shopping Center is an example.

For the past 20 years as drain commissioner, Lindemann has been re-working watersheds and creating wetlands and ponds.

These projects work to hold rainfall and use it rather than pushing it out.

"You can see the ponds, they're all meant to hold back water before it goes to the river. I can hold a two-year storm event on this one square mile watershed in these ponds," Lindemann said.

The drain commissioner's goal is to build around 50 of these projects in Ingham County, he says it will take about 40 to 50 years to get this work done and, in the process, rebuild the county's infrastructure so that it can handle our new environment.

In the meantime, Madigan says the rest of us need to do our part to slow climate change every day.

We can do this through tasks like choosing electric cars, using more solar energy, and wasting less food.

"I don't care what you call it, changes are coming, it's happening whether you like it or not," said Lindemann. "It's going to happen, and if we're smart, we're going to change to accommodate it."

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