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Great Lakes Sustainability Indicators | Drinking Water

Great Lakes Sustainability Indicators | Drinking Water

Great Lakes water indicator icons

This project is rooted in the understanding that the environmental health of the Great Lakes directly affects the region’s economic health, individual and societal health and well-being, as well as values and perceptions of the Great Lakes. Understanding how these elements interact provides powerful insights to the region’s decision-makers, advocates, and citizens. In addition, the project will inform the work of the Blue Accounting Drinking Water workgroups.

The Great Lakes offer valuable ecosystem services, including providing drinking water to many of the region’s inhabitants. Regional leaders who understand their water quality, reliability, affordability, and constituents’ trust in their drinking water are well-positioned to influence management and policy decisions.

This table highlights key indicators of Great Lakes sustainability through the lens of drinking water.

AffordabilityWater Affordability

Water Affordability

View Indicator Fact Sheet (PDF)

Water affordability is measured using yearly water and sewer expenses as compared to household income. Calculating this measure across the basin—and across demographic variables—gives policymakers, activists, and the general population insight into affordability concerns, including their magnitude and changes over time. This indicator measures the equity, as well as the sustainability, of water systems.
ReliabilityDrinking Water Advisories

Drinking Water Advisories

View Indicator Fact Sheet (PDF)

Both drinking water boil advisories and do-not-drink advisories fall under this indicator. These advisories require public announcements, which often include the reason for the advisory. Therefore this indicator speaks both to water quality across basin (in the form of possible bacterial contamination) and to system reliability (in the form of the number of main breaks). The indicator also addresses equity by identifying areas of chronic/long-lasting advisories.
Water Infrastructure Funding and Needs

Water and Sewer Infrastructure Funding and Gap

View Indicator Fact Sheet (PDF)

Aging infrastructure is one of the main drivers of water cost in the basin. Comparing infrastructure expenditures to a system’s infrastructure needs highlights both current investment and funding gaps. Both current funding and long-term needs contribute to water system sustainability, reliability, and future cost—and therefore equity.
QualityDrinking Water Quality at Tap

Drinking Water Quality

View Indicator Fact Sheet (PDF)

While water systems track water quality thoroughly, utilities generally stop monitoring water at the property line (unless required to test under regulations). Measuring water quality at tap provides crucial information on the impacts of water quality on households. This indicator will report on water quality at tap to the extent this data exists under rules such as the Michigan Lead and Copper Rule, and will report other regulated and unregulated contaminants that are measured throughout the water system.
Public PerceptionPublic Perception/Trust in Tap Water

Trust in Tap Water and Bottled Water Consumption

View Indicator Fact Sheet (PDF)

Public trust in tap water reflects consumers’ trust in their provider and the source of their drinking water. Tracking public trust over time is a way to measure the effectiveness of policy initiatives that address quality issues. Low or declining public trust may highlight areas that have rising or long-standing water issues, or where there is inherent mistrust of water suppliers. The amount of bottled water purchased is also a potential indicator of trust in drinking water. Such an indicator can be assessed at the household or community level.


About this project:

Project period: January 2019 - December 2021

Funding: This project was funded by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation

Project team:

  • Jen Read, Project Lead
  • Roland Zullo, Indicator Development Advisor (Phase One and Two)
  • Noah Webster, Indicator Development Advisory (Phase One)
  • Gabe Ehrlich, Indicator Development Advisor (Phase One)
  • Noah Attal, Indicator Development Lead
  • Jessica Tinor, Indicator Development
  • Ashley Stoltenberg, Project Coordinator

PHASE ONE (2019-2020): In the first phase, working with Great Lakes practitioners, the project team identified over 30 social, economic, and socio-economic values associated with the Great Lakes. The team selected “drinking water” and “recreational fishing” as two sustainability indicators to explore. Focusing on drinking water, the team developed and ground-truthed a suite of seven indicators across four important aspects of drinking water: affordability, reliability, quality, and public perception. Working with a subset of practitioners, the team developed the “Water Affordability” indicator. 

PHASE TWO (2020-2021): In the second phase, in collaboration with a student team from the U-M School of Information, and further guidance from Great Lakes practitioners, the project team refined and developed a suite of drinking water indicators. The suite is designed to support the regional managers and advocates by providing more information about:

  • Water affordability across socio-economic groups;
  • The reliability of water systems;
  • The quality of the water delivered to homes and businesses; and
  • Public perception of their water systems.


At the project's inception, the project team established a steering committee to illuminate the range of issues that should be reflected in the indicators suites. Through in-person meetings, periodic conference calls, and individual consultations, the steering committee helped refine the project's focus and provided invaluable input. Although all members of the steering committee had opportunities to comment on project products, such as the FAQ responses, infographics and case studies, the content is solely the responsibility of the project team. 

NameOrganizationYears Active
Raj BejankiwarInternational Joint Commission2019 - 2021
Nichole ZachardaGreat Lakes Commission2020 - 2021
Margo DavisGreat Lakes Commission2020 - 2021
Gabe EhrlichU-M Research Seminar in Quantitative Economics2020 - 2021
Noah WebsterU-M Institute for Social Research2020 - 2021
Marc GadenGreat Lakes Fishery Commission2019 - 2020
Victoria PebblesGreat Lakes Commission2019 - 2020
Darren NicholsGreat Lakes Commission2019 - 2020