Color it Green: Infrastructure and Caring for the Waters of the Great Lakes Basin

Sunrise over the St. Joseph River Dam in Three Rivers. (Dan Robinson)

Who knew pipes and stormwater, roads and the electric grid, internet broadband access and housing would be such hot topics? With the infrastructure bills being considered by Congress, people from across the country and the political spectrum are debating these topics because they have such a direct impact on our lives.  

That impact can be felt in small communities like Three Rivers or in big cities like Detroit. And community-based groups aren’t waiting for government to be the only solution to problems. For example, Detroit Future City has already been making infrastructure a priority and improving the lives of the people in their community and the health of the Great Lakes Basin. 

Ms. Nicole Brown serves as the Senior Program Manager for Land Use and Sustainability with Detroit Future City. In that capacity, she works with residents and organizations, helping them, as she puts it, get “acquainted with the wonderful concept that I have grown to love in my heart, which is green stormwater infrastructure, and showing them how this particular thing can really help to not only beautify your neighborhood, help protect our waters, but also can save you money.”

Saving Money and Caring for the Environment

Brown joined Detroit Future City in 2017, and since then she’s led the Land + Water WORKS Coalition of 10 community partners, including Friends of the Rouge and the Sierra Club. Together, they have developed a campaign to “engage residents and Detroit property owners around our role as stewards of land and water in the Great Lakes area,” according to Brown. She said the work is, “really narrowing in on the importance of educating them and engaging them in the process of helping to prevent combined sewage overflows within the city of Detroit.”

Combined sewage overflows happen when building sewage and stormwater runoff flow together in a community’s sewage system. After a storm, the volume of water can overload the system, dumping that water in an available water body instead of sending it to a sewage treatment plant. 

Businesses and organizations were being charged a fee for the amount of impervious surface, like a parking lot, they had on their properties. Because the surface is impervious, rainwater isn’t absorbed into the Earth. Rather, it runs off into the combined sewage system. The fee was helping Detroit deal with the problem, but the cost was also hitting organizations like churches pretty hard. 

That’s where Brown and the Land + Water WORKS Coalition entered the picture. The Coalition is working with church communities like Oak Grove AMEBethany LutheranSt. Suzanne/Our Lady Gate of Heaven Catholic Church, and St. Suzanne Cody Rouge Community Resource Center to improve their green infrastructure through rain gardens, bioswales, disconnecting downspouts, installing water catchment systems, and other bioretention projects. These efforts create a win-win-win situation for the churches, the city, and the environment. 

According to Brown, “They’re really looking at what are best practices around green stormwater infrastructure. How can it help support the efficiency of the current gray infrastructure that we have in the city of Detroit? How does this work help to improve quality of life for the Detroiters? And also, most importantly, how does it protect our Detroit River, which in turn protects our Great Lakes?”

Work Rooted in Faith

Brown sees the roots of this work in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. “I always joke with my mom that when Adam and Eve were placed on Earth, their first job, their only primary job, was to what? Take care of the land and the animals in the Garden of Eden where God had placed them,” she said. 

“So, I really look at our role as still carrying that forward,” she added. “While we’re busy doing all the things that we’re supposed to be doing in life, we also need to make sure that we’re still good stewards of the resources that God, or whoever your higher power is that you choose to worship, has given us to be able to interact with and live amongst on this great Planet Earth.”

As we talk, her enthusiasm for her work bursts through. “You know, as climate change is becoming more and more severe each passing year, it is much more incumbent upon us to make sure that we are truly being good stewards of this particular earth,” she said. “And so this work that I have the great fortune to be able to do allows me to combine personal passion along with professional mission, and being able to share this kind of education, and seeing how it really transforms the way people look at their role.”

The congregations that Brown works with are catching that enthusiasm as well. She said they’re “taking it back to their very foundations, and really looking at how they’re able to incorporate it into sermons. And so it’s been refreshing to be able to see that in a couple of different forms. We’ve seen people weave it into a sermon series about caring for your neighbor. And part of caring for your neighbor may be making sure that we have healthy waters. And so it’s been fascinating to see how everyone does it differently, to see how people are able to do that with younger children and Sunday school lessons.”

The congregations are able to both save money on drainage fees but also respond to their faith through good stewardship. “So it really has been wonderful to see the two things balance each other out,” she added. That balance can benefit everyone around the Great Lakes, including here in Three Rivers.

For the complete article, along with a video of the conversation with Nicole Brown, see the blog post at the Great Lakes Spirituality Project’s website, glspirit.com.

Dan Robinson is a writer, musician, educator, community organizer, and grandfather who lives in Three Rivers and tends the Great Lakes Spirituality Project. You can find out more about the Project, including other articles and interviews, at glspirit.com.

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