Author: FLOW Editor

Groundwater Should be Treated as Priceless, Not Worthless

The soil underneath Barbara Godwin-Chulick’s home in downtown Charlevoix is contaminated with toxic PCE. Photo courtesy of Interlochen Public Radio.

By Dave Dempsey

Why should we clean up contaminated groundwater instead of sealing it off?

Because what we can’t see can come back to hurt us.

Almost 40 years ago, contamination in Charlevoix’s groundwater forced the city to switch to Lake Michigan as its drinking water source. Traditionally, the state policy was to require cleanup of polluted groundwater to protect it for future uses. But in a major precedent, the state and the Environmental Protection Agency decided to let the contamination go on the belief that it would cleanse itself over time and because it was assumed nobody would be drinking the groundwater.

Now, Michigan Radio reports, that contamination is threatening health and property values.

This is one of scores of examples across Michigan where letting things go has left behind problems—and bills—for future generations.  Today’s generations.

In FLOW’s 2018 groundwater report, the Sixth Great Lake, we called for a change in state law to require cleanup of groundwater except where it is technically infeasible. Now legislation has been introduced to do exactly that.

It’s time we treat groundwater as priceless, not worthless.

FLOW Challenges Nestlé Monitoring Plan; Says it Masks True Impacts of Pumping

FLOW has submitted formal comments to the State of Michigan finding deep and fundamental deficiencies in a state-approved groundwater monitoring plan fashioned by water-bottling giant Nestlé.

FLOW’s comments to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) are regarding Nestlé Permit 1701, PW 101, and the bottled-water giant’s proposed joint agreement April 2019 monitoring plan in White Pine Springs, Osceola Township.

The comments, addressed to EGLE director Liesl Clark, EGLE supervisor James Gamble, and EGLE section manager Michael Alexander, state that the plan’s failure to adequately address hydrological effects results in the perverse outcome that the Monitoring Plan will essentially mask, rather than reveal, the actual effects and adverse impacts of the pumping allowed by the permit at issue. As a result, the current plan does not comply with General Condition 5 of Permit 1701

“Michigan waters are held by the State as sovereign,” FLOW Founder and President Jim Olson said, “meaning for all of its citizens, so by its very nature a monitoring plan must be fully transparent, independent, reliable, and accurate to collect data and understand existing hydrologic, geologic, and ecological conditions … Mere predictions based on Nestlé’s model without a vigorous monitoring plan subject to public participation and independent verification will not achieve the purpose of the law or Condition 5 of the permit.

FLOW submitted these comments, along with additional comments prepared by Robert Otwell, Ph.D., as part of its continuing scientific and legal review and comments on the above Nestlé Application, Permit 1701, and Conditions to Permit 1701.

In his comments, Otwell observed, “The plan indicates the first monitoring report will describe baseline conditions. The baseline conditions should be those collected in the early 2000s, before significant pumping had taken place. Recognition needs to be made that because of the on-going pumping of PW-101, monitoring data collected based on the proposed plan will have lower stream flows and lower groundwater levels than natural conditions.”

Nestlé won approval from former Gov. Rick Snyder’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in 2018 to more than double its pumping from 150 gallons per minute (gpm) to 400 gpm, or 576,000 gallons per day (gpd), in Osceola County just north of Evart, Michigan. Production Well PWB101, White Pine Springs Site, as it is known, is located between two cold water Muskegon River tributary creeks, Twin and Chippewa Creeks. When Nestlé applied for this pumping increase using the state’s computer water withdrawal assessment tool, it failed. Nestlé then requested and obtained a site-specific review by DEQ staff that showed only minimal declines in water levels in the summer of 2016. That led the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) and the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians to contest the permit.

How Big is the Plastics Problem in the Great Lakes?

By Dave Long

Many people realize the world has a serious problem with plastic pollution. The crisis has been featured on television, in movies and articles in National Geographic and many other publications. For example, the news has featured the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has been estimated to be the size of the state of Texas.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is largely made up of plastics. It contains single-use plastic waste, old fishing nets and buoys, and many other plastics from around the earth that have been caught up in the ocean currents. There have been several efforts to collect the plastics and reduce the volume of the garbage patch, but these efforts have not been very successful. The sad fact is three other garbage patches have been identified in the oceans, and many small islands have been destroyed by plastic waste.

The Great Lakes contain approximately 20% of the world’s surface fresh water. Compared to ocean plastics, not much has been reported about the amount of plastics in the Great Lakes. Based on the 2016 US Geological Survey (USGS) reports, significant volumes of plastics enter the Great Lakes every year, and they are not going away. The United States and Canada together discard 22 million pounds of plastic into the waters of the Great Lakes each year, according to a 2016 Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) study. Much of it washes up along the shores, accounting for 80 percent of the litter found there. Researchers report that Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland, and Detroit are the worst contributors to plastic pollution. Half of the plastic dumped into the Great Lakes—11 million pounds—goes into Lake Michigan. Lake Erie places second, receiving 5.5 million pounds. Lake Ontario gets 3 million pounds of plastic waste a year, with Lake Huron and Lake Superior receiving smaller amounts.

Plastic pollution in Lake Michigan represents approximately the equivalent of 100 Olympic-sized pools full of plastic bottles dumped into the lake every year. Most of the particles from Chicago and Milwaukee end up accumulating on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, while the particles from Detroit and Cleveland end up along the southern coast of the eastern basin of Lake Erie.

According to an article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, tiny pieces of harmful plastic called microplastics are prevalent in many rivers that flow into the Great Lakes. Results are also illustrated on a new USGS microplastics website. This study characterized the quantity, size, and shapes of floating micro- and macroplastics in 29 Great Lakes tributaries in six states with adjacent land being forested, farmland, and urban areas. Water contributions came primarily from runoff and wastewater effluent. Rivers ran through areas with varied population densities and hydrologic conditions. Plastic particles were sorted by size, counted, and categorized.

Microplastics were found in all 107 samples, with a maximum concentration of 32 particles/m3 and a median of 1.9 particles/m3. Ninety-eight percent of sampled plastic particles were less than 4.75 millimeters in diameter and therefore considered microplastics. Urban watersheds had the highest concentrations of microplastics, but microplastics were also present in streams in forested and agricultural areas.

In summary, the USGS found 12% of fish from the Great Lakes contained plastic particles, 1,285 plastic particles in a square foot of river sediment, and 112,000 particles per square mile of Great Lakes water.

Where do microplastics come from? One source is photodegradation and/or mechanical breakdown of larger items, such as Styrofoam, plastic bags, bottles, wrappers, cigarette butts, and tires. As these plastics are exposed to sunlight, wind, waves, and water currents, larger pieces get smaller and smaller. Unfortunately, filters from cigarette butts are one of the most common types of plastic pollution found on a beach and lake bottom. Many smokers simply flick their cigarette butts on the ground, or worse, in the lakes. Some 95% of cigarette filters are made of tightly packed white cellulose acetate (a plastic). These small fibers break down into smaller and smaller particles, but it takes hundreds of years for cigarette filters to degrade.

Another source of microplastics, a subgroup called microfiber, comes from washing machines. Mark Browne’s research demonstrated a large percentage of the microplastic pollution comes from synthetic fabrics like nylon and acrylic fabrics. Patagonia, in its self-funded study by the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, analyzed water and sediment samples from around the world and concluded “Microfibers are ubiquitous in the aquatic environment.” Patagonia in its own laundry study verified that large quantities of microfibers were released when washing synthetic garments, especially fleece. They also verified that wastewater treatment plants receive large quantities of microfibers and the majority of the microfibers pass through wastewater treatment plants because they are too small for treatment plants to filter.

Knowing that aquatic wildlife eat these microfibers is one thing; but seeing the impact on an individual fish brings this crisis to life—or rather, death. Sherri Mason, a professor of environmental chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, is an expert in plastic pollution, having studied its impact on the Great Lakes ecosystem for several years. Through Mason’s research, she has seen the significant impact of the food chain in the Great Lakes. Cutting open fish, she was alarmed at what she found.  The body cavity of the fish was filled with synthetic fibers. Through the microscope, they seemed to be weaving themselves into the gastrointestinal tract.

What are the known risks from microplastics? We know that microplastics and microfibers can be harmful to wildlife. They are often ingested by birds, fish, oysters, mussels, and zooplankton. Ingestion is often a physical hazard blocking the intestine, interfering with reproduction, and even causing death.

They can also be a toxic hazard. Plastic particles can accumulate contaminants such polychlorinated organics, polycyclic hydrocarbons, and pesticides, which can be associated with endocrine disruption and cancer. These contaminants can accumulate within the food chain and end up in the fish we eat. Microfibers from garments have often been treated with toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, brominated flame retardants and fluorinated fabric treatments. In a 2012 study, Mason found Lake Erie had higher concentrations of microplastics than any other body of water on Earth. Absorbed on these tiny pieces of plastic they found pollutants, such as DDT, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), too small for treatment plants to filter out.

Are those living around the Great Lakes ingesting microplastics and microfibers? If humans are eating fish and other wildlife from the Great Lakes, they are likely consuming microplastics. Your favorite beer, if manufactured with Great Lakes water, likely contains microplastics or microfibers. Microfibers have been found in bottled water derived from the Great Lakes and microplastics and microfibers have been found in small quantities in some public water systems. Unfortunately, to date, very little research has been conducted on the effects of microplastics being ingested by humans. Much research will be required to determine the health or physical impacts to human ingestion of microfibers and microplastics.

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability. He will address potential methods to reduce the volume of plastics entering the Great Lakes and its tributaries in a future article.

It’s Time to Bring Enbridge ‘Line 5’ Under the Rule of Law

In a partial victory for Michigan’s waters and the rule of law, a state government administrative law judge ruled on Monday that legal challenges to permits issued by the state for the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline project in the Straits of Mackinac can move forward. Judge Daniel Pulter ruled that Enbridge failed to show that the installation of 73 anchors along the 67-year-old pipeline would not harm the Great Lakes.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the City of Mackinac Island, and the Straits of Mackinac Alliance brought the legal challenge. In addition, FLOW has submitted several scientific and legal analyses to the State on its legal responsibility to assess and establish no serious risks to protect the Great Lakes for several years.

FLOW advised the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality back in 2016 that the applications filed by Enbridge to place anchor supports under Line 5 require a comprehensive evaluation of potential impacts and options to avoid those impacts. Line 5’s original design underestimated the currents in the Straits of Mackinac when the 1953 easement to occupy public bottomlands in the Straits was granted, with recent evidence showing the currents are stronger than previously assumed.

On Monday, Judge Pulter confirmed that such an evaluation is required, and Enbridge and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) are going to have to show the perilous lines pose no more than minimal potential harm to the Great Lakes.

They also must show there are no feasible and prudent alternatives to the dangerous lines. In fact, there is potential for devastating harm, and Enbridge, as well as its competitors, has plenty of excess capacity elsewhere in its massive system, including the extra design capacity in its new line across southern Michigan.

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor

It’s disappointing the judge ruled he didn’t have jurisdiction over the claims that the 3 miles of spans with anchors already installed constitute a total change in design, and need new authorization under the laws that protect the Great Lakes. But the upside is Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, EGLE, and the Department of Natural Resources are now free to (and should) demand Enbridge obtain the authorization to occupy the waters of the Great Lakes for this new or total change in design, one that is even more risky than the original.

The lines are sitting smack in the force of the currents and risk being hooked by another anchor strike like the one that struck and gouged Line 5 on April 1, 2018. This is a catastrophe waiting to happen. It’s time for the governor to bring this risky pipeline and Enbridge under the rule of law that protects our water, citizens, towns, and businesses that are in harm’s way.


New Book About International Joint Commission Takes Hard Look at U.S.-Canada Water Relationship

The First Century of the International Joint Commission is the definitive history of the International Joint Commission (IJC), which oversees and protects the shared waters of the United States and Canada. Created by the Boundary Waters Treaty (BWT) of 1909, it is one of the world’s oldest international environmental bodies. A pioneering piece of trans-border water governance, the IJC has been integral to the modern U.S.-Canada relationship, especially in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin.

Separating myth from reality and uncovering the historical evolution of the IJC from its inception to its present, this edited collection features an interdisciplinary group of scholars and practitioners. Dr. Daniel Macfarlane, an associate professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University, is co-editor of the book.

Why do you think the IJC is worth studying? What prompted this book?

I don’t think we can fully understand the environmental history and present state of the Great Lakes without understanding the IJC. During my doctoral work in Ottawa, over a decade ago now, I met with IJC officials and got to know Murray Clamen, the co-editor of this book.

The book has 19 chapters, 27 contributors (representing different academic disciplines as well as policy practitioners), and is about 600 pages total. It is also Open Access, which means that in addition to purchasing the physical book, PDF copies of the individual chapters, or the whole book, can be downloaded free from the book’s webpage. This accessibility was a key feature for us. The book’s chapters span thematic issues, from water to land to air, and it has geographic breadth: many chapters focus on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, but there are chapters on border waters and environmental issues on the East Coast, the Plains/Prairies, and the Pacific Northwest.

The Commission often calls itself a model for the world of binational transboundary watershed management. Is that a fair characterization, and why or why not?

In The First Century of the International Joint Commission, one of the framing questions we asked the contributors to address was whether there was a ‘myth’ of the IJC, which included whether the commission was a model to the world. And, on that score, I would say that it is a myth. One of the best tests is this: if the IJC is a model, then why have no other transboundary institutions around the world, especially water governance institutions, copied it?

The extent to which there is always agreement and impartiality within the IJC also gets exaggerated. During the mid-20th century megaprojects era — the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project, the remaking of Niagara Falls, the Columbia River — the two national sides of the IJC prioritized their respective national interests and pushed the belief that we can and should fully control nature. The IJC’s record may also look better than it really is because if an issue was not likely to produce a mutually agreeable outcome, then it usually wasn’t given to the IJC to handle.

Even if the IJC is not quite the model that is often suggested (especially by Canadians), where the IJC can appropriately be viewed as an effective model is its incorporation of best science into policy. The first time the ecosystem principle was incorporated into a policy on a large scale seems to have been in the Great Lakes, for example.

Originally, IJC was a water levels/water quantity body, with water quality gradually added to its mission, especially in the Great Lakes basin. Has that transition been a success?  To what extent has it contributed to healthier Great Lakes?

Arguably, the IJC’s greatest success has been dealing with pollution in the Great Lakes. In the middle of the 20th century, the IJC promoted big water control endeavors. But this transitioned into the studies that would become the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) in 1972. This focused primarily on conventional point source pollution in the lower Great Lakes and connecting channels.

Despite some early dockets focused on transborder pollution, such as in the Detroit River, it wasn’t until after World War II that the American and Canadian governments really got serious about Great Lakes water pollution. And that was because they could no longer ignore it.

The 1972 GLWQA was superseded by a 1978 version. The 1978 GLWQA, which expanded the regime to all the Great Lakes and encompassed nonpoint pollution and toxins, is still in place today, though it has been amended and added to several times, such as in 1987 and 2012. In 1987, Areas of Concerns (AOCs) and Remedial Actions Plans (RAPs) were added to the GLWQA.

So the transition from water quantity to quality was certainly an initial success. But when it comes to water pollution and threats to human health, we might actually be worse off today than we were a half-century ago. Granted, I think that this has happened despite the best efforts of the IJC.

The IJC’s job, and that of environmental regulation in general, is also more complicated today. The IJC was created as fairly top-down elite body in the beginning, even if it did include provisions for public hearings at the basins concerned rather than just in political capitals. Civil society now includes far more stakeholders, and puts more emphasis on local input and participation. One of the chapters in this book focuses on the role of Indigenous Peoples under the BWT/IJC.

Are the public’s expectations of IJC unrealistic, given its lack of binding decision-making authority?

Probably. It seems people either don’t know what the IJC is, hate it, or have unrealistic expectations for it. Detailing what the IJC has done in the past, and what it potentially can do in the future, were animating concerns for this book. The IJC is often like an umpire — it gets noticed when people are upset with it. Just look at the misplaced outrage from flooded property owners along the south shore of Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence over Plan 2014.

The IJC has a lot of limitations, and really can only be effective in those areas where the federal governments want it to be. The first GLWQA was successful because it was accompanied by major government spending on things like water treatment plants. When the IJC has been more outspoken and proactive, such as with the two nations not living up to their commitments under the GLWQA in recent decades, the federal governments have ignored or marginalized the IJC.

Are there reforms that could make IJC more useful, especially as climate change intensifies?

Should the IJC be able to initiate investigations and references? I tend to think so, but I’m also not sure that is realistic. A more activist IJC might undermine the extent to which it is seen as impartial, or decrease the frequency it is used by governments. Looking back, the BWT and IJC probably never would have been created if the commission was given more power since both countries didn’t, and still don’t want to, give up much sovereignty. The IJC as it was created in 1909 was a compromise, and in some ways it is surprising that this type of supranational body with a mandate to be arms-length, independent, and objective was created (there were some stronger judicial-type powers in the BWT but those have never been used).

Changing the text of the Boundary Waters Treaty would probably be a bad idea, since opening it up may give some political interests the opportunity to water it down — forgive the pun — rather than enhance the treaty or commission. The IJC has shown that it can adapt on its own. For example, the BWT outlined an order of precedence for how boundary waters should be used, and recreational and environmental uses were not even listed. But they have been incorporated over time. Same thing with a concern for ecological health. The IJC alone can’t be a solution, but it can be an important part of it, and this book argues that it should.

Dr. Daniel Macfarlane is an associate professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is also a senior fellow at the Bill Graham Center for Contemporary International History, University of Toronto, and president of the International Water History Association. Daniel is the author of Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seawaythe forthcoming (Sept 2020) Fixing Niagara Falls: Energy, Environment, and Engineers at the World’s Most Famous Waterfalland co-editor with Lynne Heasley of Border Flows: A Century of the Canadian–American Water Relationship. Copies of The First Century of the International Joint Commission can be ordered online here.

Michigan Courts Can Enforce a Township’s Responsibility to Remedy Widespread Septic System Failures

Worth Township photo courtesy of the Times Herald

By Janet Meissner Pritchard, FLOW interim legal director

Whose job is it to stop widespread pollution from failing septic systems?

Michigan remains the only state without statewide regulations governing the inspection of septic systems, leaving the job of protecting waters from septic systems to local governments. A 2012 decision of the Michigan Supreme Court makes clear that, in the face of widespread septic system failures in a region, Michigan courts can nevertheless step in to require a local government to comply with its duty to protect the waters of the state from sewage contamination when the local government has failed to do so.

In DEQ v. Worth Township, the Court held that a municipality can be held liable for, and is required to prevent, sewage discharge that originates within its borders, even when the discharge is from private septic systems. In this case, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)—now called the Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment (EGLE)—filed suit against Worth Township under Part 31 of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), which provides for water resources protection. The Township is located in Sanilac County, just north of Sarnia in the thumb of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

Worth Township did not have a municipal sewerage system. Instead, private septic systems handled sewage waste. Surveys of water quality conducted by DEQ in 2003, 2006, and 2008 revealed and made known to the Township that surface waters were contaminated with both fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria from raw sewage of human origin, and that conditions were progressively worsening.

The source of the contamination was due to the widespread failure of old, undersized septic systems on private properties located within the Township along the shore of Lake Huron. Oversaturated drain fields caused raw sewage to be directed into ditches and streams leading into the lake. As a result of this contamination, this section of Lake Huron was included in Michigan’s list of impaired waters. 

Based on the initial testing done by DEQ, the state agency and the Township in 2004 entered into an agreement wherein the Township agreed to construct a municipal sewerage system by 2008. The Township did not construct such a system, citing lack of funds. DEQ filed suit, seeking injunctive relief under part 31 of NREPA, MCL 324.3101 et seq. to compel the Township to take measures to prevent the discharge of raw sewage into the waters of the state. The trial court found in favor of DEQ and ordered the Township to pay a $60,000 fine and attorney fees and to take corrective measures.

While the order did not specifically require the Township to install a municipal sewerage system to remedy the widespread failure of private septic systems, the parties agreed that the most practical and comprehensive method for restraining the discharge would be to construct a sewerage system. The Court of Appeals reversed the order, holding that a municipality cannot be required to prevent the discharge of sewage from private properties. DEQ, in turn, appealed to Michigan’s Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court ruled that a municipality can be required to prevent the discharge of raw sewage that originates from within its borders, even when that sewage is discharged by private parties onto private property, and not by the municipality itself. The Court’s reasoning turned on its interpretation of MCL 324.3109, which sets forth the statutory framework regarding violations of NREPA involving unlawful discharges into state waters. MCL324.3109(2) provides specific language with regard to violations by governmental entities: “discharge of any raw sewage … directly or indirectly, into any of the waters of the state shall be considered prima facie evidence of a violation of this part by the municipality in which the discharge originated unless the discharge is permitted by an order or rule of [DEQ].”

The Court reasoned that the phrase “shall be considered prima facie evidence of a violation of this part by the municipality in which the discharge originated” is at the core of the dispute. The Court of Appeals had interpreted this phrase to mean that, when raw sewage originating within the municipality’s borders is discharged into state waters, this statutory language creates a rebuttable presumption that the municipality itself discharged the sewage and, if the municipality proves that it did not cause the discharge, it avoids responsibility.

But, applying several standard rules of statutory interpretation, the Supreme Court rejected the Appellate Court’s reasoning and instead determined that the Legislature intended to place responsibility for a discharge of raw sewage on the municipality in which the discharge originated and to give that municipality the burden of showing that the discharged raw sewage does not rise to the “is or may become injurious” standard in order to avoid being subject to penalties or orders for injunctive relief, as provided for in MCL 324.3115.    

The Worth case not only clarifies that Michigan law places responsibility for sewage discharges into state waters on local municipalities, it also demonstrates that Michigan courts are able and willing to order injunctive relief to enforce the duty of a municipality to prevent such discharges. 

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Worth, in 2014 the Michigan legislature modified MCL 324.3109 to provide that a municipality is not liable for sewage discharge where the discharge is from three or fewer private septic systems. While this amendment limits a municipality’s strict liability where the problem emanates from just a few septic systems, it does nothing to overrule the reasoning of the Court in Worth or the application of the Court’s holding in cases where the failure of septic systems is widespread, as was the situation in Worth Township. 

Worth is not the only Michigan township to experience widespread failure of septic systems.  As highlighted at the Michigan Septic Summit convened by FLOW in November 2019, an estimated 130,000 septic systems are leaking E. coli and other pollutants into Michigan groundwater, lakes, and streams. The Worth case clarifies that municipalities have a legal duty to take corrective measures to prevent these discharges but, in fact, some local governments are weakening their oversight of septic systems rather than strengthening them.  

Meanwhile, in Worth Township, following the Court’s order, the Township built a municipal sewerage system. By October 2019, the system was ready for residents throughout the Township to hook up to the new system.  

As argued by many participants at FLOW’s septic summit, the state legislature should enact a statewide sanitary code to protect the paramount public interest in groundwater and surface waters, setting environmentally protective standards for inspection and maintenance of on-site sewage (septic) systems, as every other state has done. The Worth case demonstrates, however, that even in the absence of state law authorizing EGLE to enforce state standards for septic systems, the regulatory agency can turn to state courts to enforce municipalities’ responsibilities to protect against the discharge of human sewage to state waters under existing state law, just as DEQ did in Worth.

The same kind of claims can also be brought against municipalities by private citizens or organizations, through a private right of action under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA). The Attorney General could also prosecute a claim of public nuisance against a responsible municipality, as referenced in MCL 324.3109(6). 

In some cases, stronger oversight and maintenance of existing private septic systems will be sufficient to remedy the problem. But sometimes, particularly in regions becoming more densely populated, drain fields to which private septic systems direct sewage waste can become oversaturated and contaminate state waters. In such cases, as in Worth Township, building a municipal sewerage system may be the most practical and comprehensive method for restraining the discharge. Building a municipal sewerage system is a substantial and expensive undertaking. To help financially constrained municipalities undertake such remedies, Michigan must find ways to fill its funding shortfall to meet the state’s water infrastructure needs. An amount of between $800 million to $1 billion is needed each year to address the state’s water infrastructure needs.

Different solutions may be required for different circumstances. Solutions could include a strong septic system ordinance or code, more frequent and stricter inspections of private septic systems, or the installation of a new sewerage system. But the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Worth makes one thing clear: If municipalities do not step up to address failing septic systems, they might have to answer for it in court.

Who Owns the Water? Glen Arbor Arts Center, FLOW Hold Student Art Exhibition

Applications are available for the Glen Arbor Arts Center’s (GAAC) 2020 student exhibition, Who Owns The Water? This themed, juried exhibition takes place April 7-May 1, and is open to students in grades 9-12, attending schools in Benzie, Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. The deadline for online submissions is March 4. Three cash prizes will be awarded.

Applicants are challenged to come up with a visual response to the exhibition’s titular question: Who owns the water? The exhibition is open to 2D and 3D media. A prospectus and application are both online, at the Glen Arbor Arts Center’s website.

“Student voices have been some of the most powerful, and the most articulate in the contemporary struggle to protect, conserve and preserve the natural world,” said GAAC gallery manager Sarah Bearup-Neal.

Students often think fearlessly and presciently about issues that send adults into a state of slow-mo inaction. As a culture, we need to hear from these young citizens, and listen to their thoughts and ideas. That’s the driving belief behind the Who Owns The Water? exhibition. It’s an open invitation to all high school students to weigh in on that essential question, and really tell us—and, using the visual arts, show us—what they think and feel.”

FLOW is a collaborator on this exhibition. Our new “Art Meets Water” initiative highlights examples of the heart-felt creativity that inspires us to fight for our public waters. “We all know that water is the source of the future,” says Leelanau County poet, playwright and paddleboarder Anne-Marie Oomen. “But it’s also a part of our souls and our spirits.”

An opening reception for Who Owns the Water? will be held at the Glen Arbor Arts Center on April 8 from 4-6 p.m.

As part of the Who Owns The Water? exhibition, the GAAC will also host the Fresh Water Poetry Throwdown on April 19. Any high school student can participate by reading an original poem—free verse, conventional verse, slam verse or otherwise—about water.

Read more about this event at the GAAC website. There is no charge to participate in the Fresh Water Poetry Throwdown, but poets must pre-register by Friday, April 3, for one of the 20 available slots. To pre-register, call the GAAC at 231-334-6112.

Wanted: a Government That Acts Like an Adult and Cleans Up its Mess

Gov. Whitmer’s State of the Union response: standing up for the Great Lakes and environment

The Trump Administration has attacked longstanding U.S. environmental policy head-on. The unprecedented rollback of environmental protections during the past three years puts Michigan, the Great Lakes, and the entire nation at great risk.

Case in point: the recent rollback of federal clean water protections threatens water quality in wetlands and streams across the mitten state. “Clean water is a basic need,” Laura Rubin, director of the Healing Our Waters—Great Lakes Coalition told Bridge Magazine in response. “I am astounded that you would even think about rolling back regulations when you still have people in Michigan that don’t have clean drinking water. We need more—not less—protection for clean water.”

The National Environmental Policy Act—nicknamed the “Magna Carta” of American environmental law—which former President Richard Nixon signed into law on Jan. 1, 1970, is also under threat. This CNN report chronicles Trump’s attacks on the environment.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was given a prime opportunity to provide a bold, optimistic alternative to Trump’s war on the environment when she delivered the Democratic Party’s response to the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Feb. 4.

She highlighted the efforts of young people who are standing up for the environment and other progressive policies:

Democracy takes action and that’s why I’m so inspired by young people. They respond to mass shootings, demanding policies that make schools safer. They react to a world that’s literally on fire with fire in their bellies to push leaders to finally take action on climate change. They take on a road filled with potholes with a shovel and some dirt. It’s what gives me great confidence in our future and it’s why sometimes it feels like they’re the adults in the room. But it shouldn’t have to be that way. It’s not their mess to clean up, it’s ours.”

As the leader of our Great Lakes state, and the protector of our lakes, streams, air, and groundwater, FLOW applauds Whitmer for standing up for the 1.5 million workers whose jobs are directly tied to the health of the Great Lakes. We encourage Whitmer to call for a Great Lakes platform to protect our drinking water, public health, jobs and quality of life.

During her State of the State address last week, Whitmer initially alluded to critical issues including drinking water, climate change, PFAS, record-high Great Lakes water levels, and “their impact on tourism, agriculture and infrastructure”. She suggested that she will make big announcements in the weeks ahead.

FLOW would like to hear her talk more about how state and federal government can protect water and the environment.

Surveys show overwhelming bipartisan support for the protection of air, water, public lands, and natural resources—an essential function of government. 

FLOW’s environmental economics work over the past year makes the economic, legal and moral case for government’s role in protecting the environment and aims to reset the public narrative on environmental policy. Our “Resetting Expectations” briefs by former FLOW board chair Skip Pruss trace the history of environmental regulation since 1970, and illustrate how environmental policies protect individuals, families, and communities while fostering innovation and economic gains.

FLOW Calls for Strong, Protective Drinking Water Standards for “Forever Chemicals”

Meeting a January 31 deadline for public comment, FLOW urged state officials to adopt standards protecting the health of Michigan residents from PFAS chemicals detected in drinking water supplies serving 1.9 million residents.

FLOW also appreciates the 42 people who responded to a FLOW alert and submitted their own PFAS comments to the state.

Joining a broad coalition of environmental, public health and grassroots citizen organizations, FLOW told the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to adopt the proposed science-based standards. They would put Michigan among the leading states moving ahead to protect residents from these long-lasting toxic chemicals.

“It is imperative for Michigan to promulgate the proposed rules as soon as practicable,” FLOW wrote. “Testing continues to turn up new sites of PFAS contamination in Michigan, many of them exposing citizens to substantial health risks. Federal rules are likely years away and may not provide the level of protection that the people of Michigan want and need for public health and the environment. We applaud Governor Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) for your initiative to address the problem head-on.”

David Long, head of Environmental Solutions LLC, wrote last week in a blog post on FLOW’s website, “Studies show evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals persist in the body for a long time and can accumulate. In laboratory animals, researchers found that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological effects.

“Consistently elevated cholesterol levels have been found in people with detectable levels of PFOA or PFOS. Lower infant birth weights, immune system effects, cancer (PFOA), and thyroid disruption (PFOS) have also been associated, albeit less frequently, with PFOA or PFOS.”

In addition to supporting the general outline of the standards, FLOW urged EGLE to:

  • Require a review of the rules in two years to take into account emerging science;
  • Require frequent monitoring of public water supplies to learn more about seasonal patterns and sources of PFAS;
  • Strengthen protection of infants and children.

Governor Whitmer has said she hopes the rules can be made final by summer.

The State of Governor Whitmer’s State of the State Message

By Dave Dempsey

Early in each new year, the Governor of Michigan sets forth a policy agenda for the Legislature and the state as a whole. This year, Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State message on the evening of Wednesday, January 29.

Whitmer will inevitably tackle roads, jobs, infrastructure, education, and Michigan’s economic prosperity, but the environment must be a key part of her speech.

Whitmer would do well to emulate her predecessor Gov. William Milliken, who 50 years ago gave a 1970 State of the State speech that fought environmental degradation and deregulation and called for dramatic changes in state policy to better protect the air, water, land, fish and wildlife. The 1970 legislative session resulted in the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Natural Rivers Act, the Great Lakes Shorelands Act and more.

Environmental, natural resources and public health policies are a critical part of Michigan’s policy needs. Governor Whitmer has an important opportunity to move the state forward by outlining bold steps for the state to take to assure safe and affordable drinking water for all; assure our water remains public and is not captured by private commercial interests for profit; protect rivers, lakes and habitat; and promote solutions to the climate crisis.

(Whitmer will appear on an even bigger stage on Tuesday, February 4, when she delivers a Democratic response to the State of the Union address.)

Here are issues for Michigan citizens to listen for that FLOW urges the Governor to cover in her State of the State message:

FLOW’s State of the State Agenda

FLOW believes the Governor should:

Bring Line 5 Pipelines Under the Rule of Law:

• Direct that Enbridge obtain authorization under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA) and public trust law for the new 2018 tunnel easement and long-term private control of the Straits of Mackinac for the tunnel and existing Line 5.

• Nullify, revoke, and/or terminate the 1953 easement to use the lakebed at the Straits under which Enbridge operates Line 5 for violation of public trust law, and the rule of law under the GLSLA.

Address the Climate Crisis:

• Issue an executive order setting state renewable energy and decarbonization targets and methods to achieve them.

• Direct a study of the future impacts of climate change to the Great Lakes, identifying measures to promote adaptation and resiliency.

Provide Safe, Clean, Affordable Water for All:

• Support legislation and policy that declares and protects the paramount public interest in the State’s water and the individual’s right and access to safe, clean, affordable water and prevents water shutoffs.

Stop Septic System Pollution:

• Call for the Legislature to enact a statewide sanitary code to protect the paramount public interest in groundwater and surface waters, setting environmentally protective standards for inspection and maintenance of on-site sewage (septic) systems.

Prevent Great Lakes Exports:

• As Chair of the Great Lakes Compact Council, call for revision of Compact procedures to prevent unlawful diversions and exports, and establish a framework to address impacts on waters of the Basin from the effects of climate change.

Invest in the Protection of State’s Water and Water Infrastructure:

• Support a funding mechanism or mechanisms, including conservation, efficiency, and innovative user fees, to close the huge gap between water infrastructure needs and available funds, and coordinate the funding mechanism with the right to water, health, and affordability.

Make Polluters Pay:

• Hold polluters rather than taxpayers accountable for contamination cleanup costs, and restore standards that require cleanup rather than containment of toxic pollutants from the waters of our State.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW’s senior policy adviser, wrote the award-winning biography William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate (University of Michigan Press, 2006).