Turning on the tap and receiving drinking water is so commonplace that we often forget how vulnerable that water can be to contamination.
But Michiganders have reason to grasp the threat. The lead contamination crises in Flint and Benton Harbor have been news not only in the state, but across the country. Congress has approved $15 billion in federal funding to attack the problem of lead pipes nationally. The Michigan Legislature has appropriated almost $139 million to replace lead lines.
Lead pipes are just one of many threats to Michigan’s drinking water. The threat from other contaminants is greatest not to users of public drinking water systems, whose sources are predominantly surface water drawn from rivers and the Great Lakes and are regularly monitored, but to those who rely on the more than 1.25 million private wells in Michigan, which go largely untested. Many people don’t realize that 45% of Michigan’s population drinks water from underground sources.
During Drinking Water Week, recognized May 1-7 by the State of Michigan and nationally, filling knowledge gaps is a critical priority. Knowing the source of your drinking water is crucial, and so is knowing about threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to prevent its contamination.
Unlike public water supplies, drinking water from private wells is not government-tested for pollutants. Instead, the burden is generally on homeowners—and so is the testing cost, which can be steep. A test for toxic PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” with potentially major human health effects, costs up to $300. The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) has posted information and recommendations related to exposure to PFAS in drinking water.
Knowing the source of your drinking water is crucial, and so is knowing about threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to prevent its contamination.
FLOW has documented some of the pollution that threatens groundwater in two reports, including Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake. Toxic substances, nitrate, chloride, bacteria, and other contaminants are found in private wells across Michigan. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development reports that elevated nitrate levels have been identified at 18 percent of private sites tested for nitrate, and half of these contain nitrates above public drinking water standards. Nitrate is among the contaminants that do not affect the taste and appearance of drinking water and thus could be consumed without people noticing in the absence of testing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that private well users have their water tested annually for contaminants. The CDC also recommends keeping household hazardous materials such as paint, fertilizer, pesticides, and motor oil far away from wells.
Many bottled water customers, however, do not realize that much bottled water comes from public supplies—they are drinking bottled tap water from systems paid for by taxpayers and marked up for significant profit by the private sector.
For Michigan residents who receive drinking water from public water supplies, safety and contamination are regulated. Federal and state Safe Drinking Water laws require regular testing and treatment of public water. Customers of public water supplies are entitled to receive annual consumer confidence reports that detail levels of key contaminants and any violations of drinking water standards.
In 2020, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), there were 922 Safe Drinking Water Act violations in 334 community supplies. Most of these violations related to treatment or reporting requirements, not violations of health-based drinking water standards.
Many Michiganders drink bottled water—some as a short-term replacement for contaminated public or private water supplies, but far more do so for the perceived convenience and hydration. Many bottled water customers, however, do not realize that much bottled water comes from public supplies—they are drinking bottled tap water from systems paid for by taxpayers and marked up for significant profit by the private sector. Aquafina and Dasani labels in Michigan are drawn from the public supply for Southeast Michigan. And most of the remainder of bottled water packaged in Michigan—such as BlueTriton’s (formerly Nestle’s)—comes from groundwater that is tributary to Michigan’s streams and lakes. In effect, it and consequent private profits come from sources that belong to the people of Michigan under the public trust doctrine.
Drinking water is not to be taken for granted. Becoming aware of sources and threats is vital to our individual, family, and public health. Learn more about FLOW’s efforts to protect groundwater here on our website.