Don’t Forget the Department of Natural Resources

Michigan's DNR has an important role to play on water protection

An angler speaks with a DNR creel clerk. Photo courtesy Michigan DNR

By Tom Baird

Many Michiganders overlook a state agency critical to the environment.

When we talk about water issues in Michigan, we usually think of environmental protection, especially related to pollution and public health. We tend to forget that environmentalism was born out of the conservation movement of the early 20th century. Water issues remain central to the mission of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to this day.

Water was an integral aspect of the early conservation efforts of Michigan, often related to fish and game issues, as well as agriculture. The Department of Conservation was created in 1921, and the DNR took its place in 1965. Michigan’s early environmental laws were assigned to the DNR, but under Governor John Engler the Department was split, with environmental functions going to the Department of Environmental Quality (now Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, EGLE), allegedly because the environmental staff at the DNR was too zealous in its enforcement of the law.

The DNR still has an active water program, covering areas of major concern. Under the new administration of Governor Gretchen Whitmer, several of these areas have seen renewed focus. And the DNR has a Senior Water Policy Advisor, Dr. Tammy Newcomb, who oversees many of these efforts.

PFAS pollution is an area generally within the purview of EGLE and the Department of Health and Human Services. The DNR has an important role in assessing contamination of water bodies and the fish and game that use them. Recently “do not eat” advisories have been posted due to PFAS contamination on Clark’s Marsh and the Au Sable River near Oscoda and the Huron River, for example. The DNR is critical in determining how PFAS compounds work through an ecosystem, and its half-life in various species of fish. Michigan appears to be the only place in the world that has tested white-tailed deer for PFAS contamination, resulting in a “do not eat” advisory for venison near Oscoda. Much of this work has been controversial, especially in areas where hunting and fishing are integral to the local economy, but the DNR has pushed hard when public health was at risk.

Water withdrawals remain another controversial area of concern where the DNR is involved. Applicants for high-volume ground water withdrawal authorizations use the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) to determine whether a withdrawal will have an adverse environmental effect. This is based on a computer model that assesses the effect on nearby streams. Those streams are classified, in part, by their temperature, flow, and the type of fish living in them. Cold-water trout streams, for example, are highly valued, so a relatively small adverse effect (compared to a sluggish warm water stream) might trigger a denial. The DNR is responsible for characterizing each stream’s type, and identifying the fish that live in it. Recent water withdrawals by Nestlé for bottled water and by Encana for fracking in northern Lower Michigan, and for agricultural irrigation in the southwestern part of the state, have caused significant controversies and litigation. The WWAT is under continuing review.

The Water Use Advisory Council is back in operation. Its purposes include the study of groundwater use in Michigan, and review of the scientific basis and implementation of the WWAT. As noted above, the DNR has an integral role to play, and Dr. Newcomb is the DNR’s delegate to the Water Use Advisory Council. Important work on the WWAT will continue in 2020.

Invasive species are a never-ending challenge for the Great Lakes. A major focus is Asian carp. Intensive negotiations are continuing with Illinois and federal authorities to block their migration into Lake Michigan. The goal is to engineer and finance the “Brandon Road Locks Project.” Brandon Road is a system connecting Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. It could allow carp to invade the Great Lakes. The project involves measures such as an engineered channel and acoustic fish deterrent, air bubbles, electric currents, improved locks with flushing systems, specialized boat ramps, and other measures. Negotiations with Illinois are ongoing, with the DNR keeping up the pressure.

Climate change is a major emerging threat to Michigan’s fish, wildlife, and state forests. Warming temperatures and severe weather events threaten rivers, lakes, and streams, and their fisheries. The DNR Fisheries Division has been studying the issue for several years now. At some point, difficult decisions will need to be made regarding management of these resources in the face of these climate effects. For example, some streams will warm to the point that they will not be viable habitats for trout, causing management objectives to change. This will be controversial due to its effect on anglers and local recreational economies, and the DNR will play a central role in deciding how to manage these resources in the face of these changes.

The Department of Natural Resources remains integral to the study and management of Michigan’s water issues.  Monitoring its work is critical to assure healthy and productive habitats and sustainable water uses.

Tom Baird, who serves on FLOW’s board of directors, is past president of the Anglers of the Au Sable and chair of the group’s legal and governmental relations committees. Reach him at tbairdo@aol.com.

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Michigan's DNR has an important role to play on water protection