Author: FLOW Editor

How Far We’ve Come: The Bad Old Days of Waste Dumping in the Great Lakes

By John Gannon

My first job after graduating from high school in 1961 was working on the stewards’ crew of the S. S. Aquarama, a car ferry-passenger ship that ran from Detroit to Cleveland. It was put out of business the next year upon completion of freeways between the two cities. Its advertising promotion was, “take the ferry and avoid the hard drive between Detroit and Cleveland.”

The S. S. Aquarama was nine decks high, including two decks for vehicles, a ballroom with entertainment, four bars and three restaurants. It was a converted former World War II troop carrier and was fast for its size. My main duty was to be the entrée server in the buffet restaurant. That was not enough for my eight-hour day, so I also served breakfast to the officers in the morning and closed down a grill restaurant in the evening.

The latter job included cleaning the grill and periodically draining the spent oil from the fryer. When I had a full five-gallon pail, I was instructed to take the pail in the elevator, take it down to the water level and dump the oil into the Detroit River through a large, open hatch. The hatch was large enough for me to fall into the river with the pail if I was not careful. For my “safety” I was instructed to do this in the river before the ship got into Lake Erie when the rocking motion of the ship might make this task more dangerous.

When the ship was in Detroit overnight, it docked just downstream of the Ambassador Bridge. I recall the flotsam and jetsam that accumulated between the ship and the breakwater overnight. Besides occasional branches, logs, bottles, and cans, my lasting impression was of the accumulated oil sheen and white tallow balls.

While working on my Master’s degree at the University of Michigan (U of M) from 1965-67, I worked as fisheries technician at the Ann Arbor federal fishery lab (now the U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Science Center), including duty aboard the lab’s fishery research vessel, R/V Cisco. In those days, the garbage can was lashed to the fantail. When we were offshore, the deckhand would empty the trash while the ship was underway. The ship’s crew were former commercial fishers, and just as most folks in that era, it was common practice to dump waste into the lake. That’s what everyone did, and as the ship continued to steam ahead, the garbage became “out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”

I can’t recall whether the practice ended before my tenure at the lab was complete, but I suspect the practice ended soon thereafter as the environmental awareness movement was gaining momentum and the “Don’t do it in the lake” signs and slogans became prominent. I did some fieldwork on U of M’s research vessel, R/V Inland Seas, and lots of fieldwork on University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s R/V Alewife and R/V North Star (now the R/V Neeskay) from 1968-72, and garbage was no longer dumped into the lakes from research vessels.

But old habits sometimes die hard. I co-taught the fish ecology class at the Ohio State University’s Stone Biological Laboratory from 1995-2002. I was surprised in those early years that there was no recycling at the lab, especially being on an island. One summer, Rozanne Fortner taught an environmental education/communications class, and her students started a recycling program that continued thereafter. Several years after the program was initiated, we discovered that the head maintenance man at the lab thought recycling was poppycock. After students, faculty and staff separated recyclables from trash, the maintenance staff threw it all into the same dumpster. Once this was discovered, the practice was eliminated, and student-faculty-initiated recycling continues to this day.

John Gannon is a limnologist and fisheries biologist. He received degrees in biology at Wayne State University, fisheries at the University of Michigan and zoology (limnology) at the University of Wisconsin. He spent 12 years in academia and 29 years in Federal government service. He worked on the Great Lakes his entire career. Now retired, his career evolved from research to research program management and to the interface between research and policy. He held positions at the University of Michigan Biological Station, SUNY-Oswego, The USGS Great Lakes Science Center (and its predecessors), and the International Joint Commission.

The Most Hidden Source of Microfibers in the Great Lakes is Our Laundry

By Dave Long

Plastic bottles, bags, straws, and packaging are often the focus for reducing plastics in Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. But there’s a smaller, more ubiquitous type of plastic pollution, called microfibers—fibers less than 5 millimeters in length—that may pose a bigger threat and may be harder to solve. Many people are surprised to learn that one major source of microfibers is our laundry.

Synthetic microfibers which are released from plastic-based synthetic fabrics used in clothing, furniture, carpets, cigarette butts and other textiles are a subset of microplastic pollution entering the Great Lakes. Synthetic fabrics include polyester, nylon, and acrylics as well as blends of synthetic and natural fibers. When we wash textiles made from synthetic fabrics in the washing machine, tiny threads break and are released, exiting our homes with wash water where they travel to the wastewater treatment plants or to private septic systems. They are too small to be filtered out, remain in wastewater effluents, and are released to local watersheds, streams, rivers, and lakes.

To quantify the problem, Patagonia Outdoors, based in Ventura, Calif., worked with researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014 to explore the extent of microfiber pollution. That research, which culminated in a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2016, examined microfiber shedding from four synthetic fleece Patagonia jackets and one from another brand.

The scientists found that when the garments were washed, an average of 1.17 grams of microfibers were released. The study also found that the amount of shedding was influenced by the type of washing machine used: Top-load machines saw seven times as many microfibers released compared to front-load washing machines. This was because front-load washing machines tend to use less water and the tumbling motions are less rigorous.

Washing machines are not the only source of microfibers. Synthetic fabrics shed microfibers all the time. Much of the dust in your home consists of microfibers created by walking on the carpet and sitting on your furniture. Activities such as cleaning carpets and furniture accelerate the shedding of microfibers. No one knows exactly how many or how all the microfibers get into the water. We do know major inputs to the Great Lakes are wastewater treatment plants, streams, rivers, runoff, and the air. A study conducted by the University of Toronto estimated 23 to 36 trillion microfibers may be released into Lake Ontario watersheds each year from washing machines alone.

It has been estimated that even more microfibers enter Lake Michigan because of the significant population centers of Chicago, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, and Traverse City, and inputs from major rivers that feed the lake. It is not surprising that microfibers are impacting the health of the food chain in Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes. Microfibers are being found in zooplankton at the bottom of the food chain, and in fish that we are consuming.   

Some of the impacts on the food chain have been identified, while other impacts can only be hypothesized. Zooplankton have been observed with microfibers blocking their intestines, which can be fatal. Mussels are filtering microfibers from the water. When these are consumed by predators, the microfibers move up the food chain. Fish stomachs have been found to be full of microfibers and microplastics. As humans we have been consuming microfibers and microplastic from sports fish from the Great Lakes, from beer made with Great Lakes water, and from tap water. Microfibers were found in each of the 12 mainly Pilsner-style beers tested from all five Great Lakes. The number of particles per liter ranged from 0-14.3 and averaged 4.05. 

We all need to be concerned about the long-term impact of microfibers in the Great Lakes. Will the microfibers disrupt the food chain by killing zooplankton at the bottom of the food chain? Or will microfibers and microplastics adsorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and pass the toxins up the food chain to the fish we eat from the Great Lakes? We do not know the answers to these and many other questions on the impact of microfibers and microplastics. More research is needed to answer these questions.

The big question is what can we do to stop or reduce the number of microfibers entering the Great Lakes. Steps we as consumers can take to reduce the number of microfibers going into our aquatic environment include the following:

  • Choose natural fibers when you can: Polyester, rayon, nylon and acrylic shed plastic fibers that are not biodegradable.
  • Major clothing manufacturers like Patagonia recommend washing clothes only when needed. A study suggests most Americans wash clothes too frequently which adds to the shedding of microfibers.
  • Use a front-loading washing machine: A study found that clothes shed 7 times more fibers in top-load washers compared to front loaders.
  • Wash at low temperatures: Hot water can cause clothes to break down more quickly than cold or warm water.
  • Use liquid detergents: Powdered detergents can be abrasive to clothes which can mechanically break fibers causing more shedding of microfibers.
  • Wash heavy and light clothes separately: Mixing heavy and light clothing in the washer leads to more abrasion of the lighter clothing increasing the shedding of microfibers.
  • Choose shorter wash cycle: Reducing the wash time reduces the amount of abrasion, which reduces microfiber shedding.
  • Use one of the new microfiber filters: Use a GuppyFriend washing bag, which keeps microfibers inside the washing bag.

Small steps can help reduce the release of microfibers into the Great Lakes and Lake Michigan, but we are not going to stop them or eliminate them completely. We are not going to remove the trillions of fibers already in the Great Lakes. The challenge is to develop technology or filtering systems for wastewater treatment plants to remove microfibers from the treated water.

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability.

We’re All in this Together

Photo: FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood (third from left) and family takes flight over Route 40 and celebrates the view of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (Fitzroy range) on the way to the town of El Chaltén in Argentina.

Dear Friends of FLOW,

I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe in these very trying times.

It’s hard to believe that it was only two weeks ago when many of us awakened to the deep impact that a global pandemic would have on our everyday lives. I realized just how serious the coronavirus outbreak was while my family and I were visiting the town of Pucón, Chile. The United States had just announced a European travel ban, and we immediately worried about travel bans extending across South America and the possibility of being stranded.

We jumped into high gear, forgoing the last weeks of our three-month sabbatical in Argentina and Chile, and secured seats on one of the last international flights out of Argentina. Six thousand miles later, we arrived in Traverse City, thankful to be safe in our home and grateful for the unforgettable friendships and experiences we gleaned, and the time we spent in the wilderness of Patagonia.

I write this note to you from my remote home office, while self-quarantining, to let you know that FLOW’s staff and I are back together (at least virtually—all from our homes), and more dedicated to our work than ever before. Because what could be more important than ensuring access to safe, affordable drinking water for all during a public health emergency?

We cannot beat COVID-19 without access to safe water for all of us. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer recognized this when she announced “a water-restart plan” to restore water to thousands of shut-off homes. Turning on the tap for some 10,000 households, however, is not happening fast enough, leaving the most vulnerable families at high risk of infection. A sobering op-ed about the crisis and water shutoffs by Elin Betanzo and Sylvia Orduño lays out the complexities and dangers involved in restoring water service. And this new article by FLOW’s Interim Legal Director Janet Pritchard lends additional perspective.

Thankfully, the People’s Water Board (PWB), We the People of Detroit, and other frontline partner organizations are delivering water, gallon by gallon, to affected families in Detroit, Flint, and elsewhere. Read more from the PWB’s demand letter to the Governor, urging immediate help and a future ban on all water shutoffs.

Water is a public health issue. Water is a human right. This is what the pandemic tells us.

The health and well-being of FLOW’s staff, our board, our volunteers, our supporters, our friends, our partners, and all of our communities is our highest priority. We responded to the pandemic by closing our Traverse City office on March 16, and our office will remain closed through at least April 13, pursuant to Governor Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order.

But our work continues. It continues every day. We are developing legal and policy solutions for Michigan’s water infrastructure crisis and addressing the COVID-19 emergency needs, fighting Line 5 to prevent a catastrophic Great Lakes oil spill, educating about the importance of groundwater and the need for septic system pollution-control legislation, elevating the role of government in safeguarding our natural resources, and much, much more.

We’re also busy revising plans that we were making to connect with you in person over the next several months. You know how much we love to gather together and celebrate the gifts of our water. While we have to pause these gatherings during this time of social distancing, we will continue to celebrate with you remotely. This April 22nd, for example, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. So stay tuned for our writings on this and other causes for celebration.

In the meantime, let’s lift up our neighbors, families, and ourselves as we confront this global challenge together. Let’s find the solace of not only our human compassion, but also of open spaces and open waters. Let’s tap into the mystery and nurturing balm of nature. With spring knocking on our door, I am reminded of the late poet Mary Oliver’s words: “I don’t know lots of things but I know this: … when spring flows over the starting point I’ll think I’m going to drown in the shimmering miles of it.“

We are all in this together. We must center our lives around protecting each other and those resources that sustain us, foremost among them our water.

Yours in solidarity,
Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

PS – To lift each other up, FLOW invites you to contribute your compelling water photo and story to us for possible publication on our website or Facebook page. Please send your high-resolution photos of water to us at Identify yourself and who (if not you) took the photograph, confirm that you authorize FLOW to post the photograph, and if possible tell us when and where you took it. Feel free to tell us a little story about the photo, too. Thanks!

COVID-19 Pandemic Highlights Michigan’s Failure to Provide Clean Water for All

Photo courtesy of People's Water Board Coalition

Photo courtesy of People’s Water Board Coalition

Story update: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order on Saturday, March 28, stipulating that people who have lost water service because of non-payment of bills will have that service reconnected. The order comes with a $2 million state grant attached that will be administered by the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and sent to communities to reconnect service, which Whitmer deemed essential to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. Communities will be required to provide a 25% match for the state grant.

“The executive order directing water utilities to reconnect water access to all residents in Michigan and to restart all water systems is mission critical to ensure we can stay healthy and fight against this global pandemic,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “Frontline groups including People’s Water Board Coalition, We the People of Detroit, Flint Rising, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and others deserve special recognition as the heroes for their tireless advocacy seeking water justice in the State of Michigan. In addition to this emergency directive, we at FLOW are committed to seeking the ban of water shutoffs and other long-term policies to ensure that everyone has access to safe, affordable water. Water is a human right.”

Both Emergency Relief and Long-Term Solutions Needed

By Janet Meissner Pritchard, FLOW interim legal director

The coronavirus pandemic threatens the health of all Michiganders. And for those who already faced water insecurity, such as many families in Flint or the more than 9,500 households in Detroit whose water has been shut off due to inability to pay soaring water bills, these health risks are worsened.

People living in households without access to safe and clean water are unable to wash their hands regularly to help prevent transmission of the coronavirus and protect themselves. This increases the risk of spreading COVID-19 to others, too. And public water stations set up by community groups like We the People of Detroit to provide emergency water for shut-off households are drawing fewer volunteers to staff these sites, due to fear of contracting the virus.

The pandemic also deepens the economic insecurity of these households. Low-income, hourly wage workers are more likely to be impacted by workplace closures brought by the pandemic. When restaurants and other businesses stop, the paychecks to workers do, too.  Without access to safe, clean running water in their homes, these already financially stressed households also pay much more for water by purchasing bottled water–if they can find it in local shops during this time of shopping panic.

Ordering Restoration of Water Services Is Not Enough

On March 9, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced a moratorium on water shutoffs and ordered water services to be restored to shut-off households. But, as of March 23, only 679 homes had service restored. 

This unacceptably slow pace is, in part, because homes that have been without service for weeks, months, or even years have considerable problems with lead service lines and residential plumbing characterized by corroded and burst pipes, water heaters lined with dangerous deposits, water-borne microbial contamination in the lines from stagnant water and raw sewage, and lead contamination in plumbing and fixtures. If these plumbing risks are not corrected prior to restoring water service, “every home with an extended shutoff is like its own Flint water crisis waiting to happen.” 

In the face of these multiple challenges, metro Detroiters, led by the People’s Water Board, held a press conference last Friday, March 20, calling on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to take emergency action. Their letter to the Governor specifies several measures, including the provision of public water stations and sanitation products, that must be put in place immediately to address the current health emergency for households without clean, safe water.

The letter also points to steps needed to provide a long-term solution to these persistent problems of water insecurity. No family in Michigan should be without easy access to clean, safe, affordable water now or at any time.

The waters of the state of Michigan are valuable natural resources held in trust by the state to ensure safe, clean, accessible, and affordable water for all people and communities. Under the common law public trust doctrine, every landowner or lawful occupant of land has a right to access the water flowing through or beneath that land to serve his or her basic needs, including drinking and sanitation. When modern water works and sewerage systems were built to serve our cities, local laws required people to forego digging private wells or septic tanks and hook up to public service lines instead. But the water flowing through those lines is the same water still protected by the public trust. This is why FLOW is working with the People’s Water Board and other groups to find long-term solutions to Michigan’s water infrastructure crisis.

FLOW’s Response to the Persistent Water Infrastructure Crisis in Michigan

FLOW’s work to ensure Clean Water for All aims to identify, develop, and explain a set of policies through which the state can address Michigan’s water infrastructure funding shortfall (estimated to be over $800 million annually) to ensure safe, clean, accessible, and affordable water for all people and communities, consistent with the State’s public trust duties.

FLOW is working to:

  • Research and analyze the best funding and financing options to keep Michigan’s water safe, clean, accessible, and affordable.
  • Build relationships with other environmental and community groups—including the People’s Water Board, Michigan Clean Water Action, Sierra Club, and the Michigan Environmental Council— working on these issues in Michigan, and with water infrastructure and public financing experts, government officials, and lawmakers who can help to identify and implement equitable solutions to our water infrastructure needs.
  • Ensure a legal framework around water infrastructure that is grounded in public trust and good governance principles.
  • Identify, explain, and generate widespread support and consensus for the adoption of policies to ensure sustainable, accountable, and equitable funding for water infrastructure in Michigan.

Learn more about FLOW’s work to ensure Clean Water for All of Michigan here.

Looking Back in Remembrance: Gov. William Milliken’s 98th Birthday

Today, March 26, would have been the 98th birthday of Michigan Governor William G. Milliken, whose leadership in the 1970s and 1980s put Michigan at the forefront of the 50 states in environmental protection. Born in Traverse City and raised close to Grand Traverse Bay, Milliken developed an early appreciation for Michigan’s majestic waters.

As Governor from 1969-1982, he advocated and signed into law the major statutes that are still the framework for Michigan environmental policy. A partial list includes the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Inland Lakes and Streams Act, the Natural Rivers Act, the Sand Dune Protection and Management Act, the bottle deposit law, what is now the Natural Resources Trust Fund, controls on sources of algae blooms in western Lake Erie, and the Wetland Protection Act.

When the Governor passed away last October, FLOW was honored to be named one of two nonprofit environmental organizations to be designated by his family to receive memorial contributions in his name. We continue to accept such donations and will carry on work in Governor Milliken’s name, focusing on protection of the Great Lakes, groundwater and drinking water for all.

To donate to FLOW in honor of Gov. Milliken, please click on our Donate page, fill out all required fields, and write “Governor Milliken” in the bottom field. Thank you.

To learn the full story of the Governor’s environmental leadership, read a tribute to his life and work by FLOW senior policy advisor and Milliken biographer Dave Dempsey.

How many Microplastic Particles Do We Consume Every Year?

Bottled water

By Dave Long

As we become increasingly aware of the crisis surrounding plastics in the environment, we need to increase research on the health effects of the microplastics we ingest each year.

Tiny pieces of microplastic ranging from 5 millimeters down to 100 nanometers in diameter are showing up in oceans, lakes, and rivers and being entering the food chain as aquatic and marine organisms consume them. Ultimately, these microplastics will enter our bodies in larger numbers. However, we do not yet have the scientific data to determine the health effects of ingested or inhaled microplastics.

A study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology has estimated Americans consume more than 70,000 microplastic particles every year from the food we eat and the water we drink. Scientists warn that while the health impacts of ingesting these tiny particles are largely unknown, the plastic could potentially enter human tissues and cause an immune response, as well as release toxic chemicals into the body.

The analysis, done by biologists at the University of Victoria in Canada, examined data from 26 previous studies on microplastic contamination in fish, shellfish, sugars, salts, honey, alcohol, tap water, bottled water, and in urban air. It found that Americans eat and drink an estimated 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles every year, depending on age and gender. These numbers jumped to 74,000 to 121,000 when scientists included inhalation of microplastics.

People who drink only from plastic bottles can consume 90,000 microplastic particles annually compared to 4,000 particles for people who drank only tap water. When the 2018 Orb study for Business Insider was originally released, Aquafina and Dasani both told the magazine their bottled water is tested to strict standards and pass through high-quality filtration systems. Nestlé said the company hasn’t found microplastics in its water bottles beyond a “trace level”, disputing the study numbers. Evian did not respond to a request for comment. But studies suggest that particles do, in fact, exist in bottled water. They come out of our taps, too (though likely in smaller amounts than plastic bottle concentrations). The scientists warn that their findings are “likely drastic underestimates overall”.

Another marine food source of microplastics is sea salt, one kilogram of which can contain more than 600 microplastics. If you eat the maximum daily intake of 5 grams of salt, this would mean you would typically consume three microplastics particles a day. New research now shows microplastics in 90 percent of the table salt brands sampled worldwide. Salt samples from 21 countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia were analyzed, and only three brands did not contain microplastics— refined sea salt from Taiwan, refined rock salt from China, and unrefined sea salt from France produced by solar evaporation. The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology on October 4, 2018.

According to collaborative research done by scientists at the University of Minnesota and the State University of New York at Fredonia, microplastic fibers or particles were present in each brand of beer tested that used tap water drawn from the Great Lakes. In their paper, published in the journal, Public Library of Science, the team found that in each of the 12 mainly Pilsner-style beers tested from all five Great Lakes, the number of particles per liter ranged from 0-14.3 and averaged 4.05.

Fish and shellfish aren’t our only food sources that can contain microplastics. Just 15 percent of a person’s caloric intake is associated with the consumption of up to 52,000 microplastics annually. And the researchers note that several major U.S. food groups—including poultry, beef, dairy, grains, and vegetables—have not been studied for their microplastic contamination. In addition, the scientists weren’t able to assess how much plastic might be entering our bodies from food packaging.

The study’s findings “suggest that microplastics will continue to be found in the majority, if not all, items intended for human consumption,” the scientists wrote. “If the precautionary principle were to be followed, the most effective way to reduce human consumption of microplastics will likely be to reduce the production and use of plastics.”

David Long is the founder of Environmental Sustainability Solutions, LLC (ESS) that provides consulting services for environmental, sustainability.

Record-High Water Levels Present Tough Times for Great Lakes Beach Walkers

This story originally appeared on, Joe VanderMeulen’s online publication that features conversations about conservation and climate in northern Michigan.

The beaches along Michigan’s west coast have all but disappeared under the rising water levels of Lake Michigan as well as the other Great Lakes. In fact, lake levels haven’t been this high in well over 100 years. They reached an all-time low in 2013 before a meteoric rise brought them to an all-time high in just 7 years.

If you love taking long walks along the lake shore, the high water and waves might just push you inland and on to private property. What can you do? Do you still have a right to walk the Great Lakes shorelines?

Jim Olson, J.D., LL.M talked with FLOW founder, president, and highly-respected environmental attorney, Jim Olson, about the changing coastline of Lake Michigan and the public’s right to walk the lake shore. As Olson describes, the land under the waters of Lake Michigan (and the water itself) along Michigan’s coast is held in public trust by the State. For a very long time, the public has had the right to walk along the beach below the Ordinary Natural High Water Mark — an obvious physical line of topography and vegetation created over many years by wave action. However, the rapid change in water levels and coastal erosion has overwhelmed the Ordinary Natural High Water Mark. So, where can we walk?

Mark Breederland

Olson says, “you have the right to still walk the beach, but you’re going to have to have your toe in the water or walk in the wet sand to be [legally] safe because we don’t know where that new natural ordinary high is. But we certainly know that if you’re within the wet sand, you’re certainly within the wave action and have a right under the public trust doctrine to access and walk along the beaches and shoreline of the Great Lakes.”

An educator for Michigan Sea Grant, Mark Breederland adds that the water levels in Lake Michigan are predicted to continue breaking records for many months, causing even more coastal erosion. In many places, high shore land bluffs and fallen trees can present real hazards to beach walkers. And if beach walkers need help to get out of a difficult situation, the first responders will be put at risk too.

Linda Dewey

“I think,” Breederland says, “our beach walking is going to have to be adjusted, for sure, for 2020.”

Linda Dewey, a journalist for the Glen Arbor Sun newspaper and Lake Michigan shoreline property owner, reminds everyone that walking the shoreline of Lake Michigan is a delightful, shared activity — with limits. When in front of private property, walkers are not permitted to stop, sit and settle in. That has always been true, but now there are new hazards. Where there are fallen trees, private docks or other structures blocking the shoreline, beach walkers are not allowed to walk inland on private property.

According to Dewey, if you encounter an obstruction and can’t go around it in the water, “You’re going to have to turn around.”

The following 4-minute video offers clear explanations and illustrations.

Michigan’s Ottawa County has a Groundwater Conundrum

By Bob Otwell

In the Great Lakes state, we think of water as abundant, if not inexhaustible. Not far from Grand Rapids and Muskegon, Ottawa County is bordered on the west by the bulging waters of an engorged Lake Michigan. However, over the past 30 years, increasing use of groundwater is causing water shortages and increasing pollution within the groundwater supply.

In terms of population, Ottawa County is the fastest growing county in the state. Grand Haven is in the northwest corner and Holland is in the southwest corner of the county, and Grand Rapids sits just to the east in Kent County. Ottawa County has four sources for its water supply; Lake Michigan, inland lakes, a glacial drift aquifer, and a deeper bedrock aquifer. Most of the population receives drinking water from public water systems supplied by Lake Michigan, while the major groundwater users are irrigated farms and rural homeowners.

Michigan State University (MSU) completed two comprehensive Ottawa County groundwater reports between 2011 and 2016. The reports tabulated groundwater use, and defined geology and hydrology for the county and the region. The chart below from the MSU studies shows a sharp increase in water use starting in about 1990, led by increases in irrigation (IRR), followed by domestic wells (DOM), with smaller uses by industry and public groundwater systems. Total water use quadrupled between 1990 and 2015.

The MSU reports found that the primary issue for groundwater supply is that the bedrock aquifer water levels have declined by as much as 45 feet. This means that more groundwater is being taken out of the aquifer than is being recharged by rainfall. This lowering of groundwater levels has caused a change in flow patterns within the bedrock aquifer, resulting in increased salinity and higher chloride levels. Eight percent of samples are now above the Secondary Drinking Water Standards for chloride of 250 milligrams per liter (mg/L), which are designed to protect against taste, odor and color impacts. Many more are at levels harmful to agricultural irrigation, which can be as low as 70 mg/L. Background chloride concentrations in Michigan are typically 10-30 mg/L. The following chart from MSU studies shows increasing chloride levels since around 1995.

The bedrock aquifer, part of the Marshall sandstone formation, is an old seabed, and in some places has salinity levels higher than the ocean. Historic freshwater recharge has diluted these levels to create potable water, but the increased pumping has changed the flow regime. This groundwater conundrum is not confined to Ottawa County. Intensive groundwater pumping in other Michigan counties in the Saginaw Bay area and southeast Michigan has caused similar situations of increasing salinity.

So, what should be done about these situations? How can we live in a state with what seems like so much available water and yet have water shortages? Steps are being taken to reduce future use of the bedrock aquifer in Ottawa County. Allendale Township bans new housing developments from using groundwater. Ottawa County has prepared a groundwater sustainability plan to influence future groundwater use. The plan hopes to balance economic growth and preserve the groundwater resource. Groundwater level and quality monitoring are an important part of the plan, along with closer monitoring of water use.

But how long do we watch as degradation to the aquifer occurs before more decisive action takes place? Methodically switching irrigation supply and rural homes from the bedrock aquifer to a Lake Michigan source could permanently halt this degradation. Lack of action could harm the aquifer for future generations.

FLOW board member Bob Otwell is a hydrologist and founder of Otwell & Mawby

Recognizing Our Symbiotic Relationship with Groundwater

Groundwater system painting by Glenn Wolff

Over half the U.S. population, including 99 percent of the rural population, relies on groundwater for its drinking water supply. In Michigan, 45 percent of the population has a drinking water supply of groundwater. Groundwater is also used in crop irrigation and industrial processes. But many citizens are generally unaware of the nature and critical importance of groundwater.

Groundwater is water found underground in cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and rock. These underground stores of water are called aquifers. Aquifers consist of permeable materials like gravel, sand, sandstone, or fractured rock, like limestone, that allow water to flow through. Groundwater can be found almost anywhere: the area where water fills the aquifer is called the saturation zone, and the top of the saturation zone is referred to as the water table. The water table may be located a foot below the ground’s surface, or it can be hundreds of feet down.

Groundwater can be extracted from aquifers naturally or artificially. Springs naturally bring groundwater to the surface and discharge it into lakes and streams (surface water bodies). Wells drilled into the aquifer can also pump groundwater to the surface.

Groundwater supplies are recharged or replenished by rain and snow melt. There can be shortages if groundwater supplies are used up faster than they are naturally recharged, or if supplies are polluted by human activities.

Groundwater is critically important to daily living. Of all the Earth’s water that is usable by humans, 98 percent is groundwater. A 2005 U.S. Geological Survey found that groundwater is used for 37 percent of agricultural water use, primarily in irrigation. Consider the fact that Americans, collectively, drink more than one billion gallons of tap water every day, and that 40 percent of the world’s food supply is grown on irrigated cropland, and the crucial importance of clean groundwater becomes clear.

Most people do not realize the impact they can have on groundwater. Anything poured or spilled onto the ground’s surface can end up in the groundwater supply, even years later, and contaminated groundwater can ruin human and animal health. Overuse can lead to shortages in the water supply. The average American uses 100 gallons of water every day. If the rate of use exceeds the rate of natural recharge, a shortage may occur. With the level of public and industrial dependence on groundwater, such a shortage could be devastating.

Every individual has a responsibility to protect groundwater, because every individual is impacted daily by the quality and quantity available.

How to Protect Your Groundwater

Test your well

If your drinking water comes from a private well, have the water tested. Spring is a great time to test well water, particularly for health-related concerns like bacteria and nitrate. Check out this fact sheet on water well testing by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

Properly fill and seal an unused well on your property

Wells that are no longer in use represent a direct conduit for pollutants to contaminate the groundwater aquifer. If you have an unused well on your property, take steps to ensure that it is abandoned properly and will not contaminate groundwater in the future. Here is information you need to know from EGLE.

Take steps to reduce your water use

About 45% of Michigan residents rely on groundwater as their primary water supply. Reducing water use conserves groundwater, since most groundwater used in homes is discharged to lakes and streams and not returned to the aquifer. Some quick and easy solutions to reduce your water use include buying more efficient appliances, faucets, and toilets. Planting less water-intensive landscaping and using rain barrels to collect rainfall for watering the garden can also help to conserve groundwater. Often times, reducing water use results in lower water bills and energy savings as well. Read more here.

Do a spring cleaning of hazardous materials around your home

Old motor oil, unused or old paint/varnish or other cleaning products often build up in and around our homes. Take an opportunity during this week to do a spring cleaning of hazardous materials so that they do not end up contaminating groundwater or surface waters. Dispose of them properly — that means not down the storm sewer, and not down your septic system either.

Learn about water quality for your community water supply

Many “city” water supplies in Michigan use groundwater. About 12,000 public wells service 1.7 million citizens. Contact your local water utility and ask them for the most recent water quality data or learn about how your community’s water supply is protected.

FLOW Office Closes through at least March 27 in Response to Coronavirus

Dear FLOW supporters —

As the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) intensifies here in the Great Lakes region and beyond, our thoughts are with those everywhere whose health and well-being are impacted.

To ensure the safety of our staff, board, volunteers, and visitors, we have closed our office in downtown Traverse City through Friday, March 27—or longer, if needed, in response to emerging information and rapidly changing circumstances. Our staff members will work remotely during that time to protect themselves and others, consistent with guidance provided by local, state, and national public health experts.

As of March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States. We will alert you to any changes because of the pandemic to our planned events or other activities via email, our website, and Facebook.

During this public health crisis, we at FLOW are reminded how vital water is to our common welfare.

A primary measure to combat coronavirus is to wash one’s hands often with soap and water. But even that simple act of prevention is out of reach for thousands of residents in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan facing exorbitant water bills and service shutoffs, an unacceptable reality that our founder Jim Olson recently addressed in his blog.

That is just one example of why FLOW’s work must continue in these challenging times to advance policies and programs designed to protect the Great Lakes, groundwater, and safe and affordable drinking water for all. We will continue to keep you informed of our progress and opportunities for you to help make a difference.

Please stay current with our online communications and connect with us by phone at 231-944-1568, or by email at

Thank you for your continued support as we strive to protect our public waters for the benefit of all of us.

With kind regards.

—FLOW staff