Michigan Needs a Groundwater Protection Act

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

Michigan groundwater policy has failed to evolve even as understanding has grown about groundwater’s importance and its interconnection with the Great Lakes. The simple fact that Michigan has approximately 14,000 groundwater contamination sites with an estimated cleanup bill of over $1 billion—most of it likely to be charged to taxpayers—should make groundwater a public policy imperative. The first major step toward fulfilling the public commitment to groundwater is the enactment of a Michigan Groundwater Protection Act with elements described in FLOW’s recent report, Deep Threats to our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency.

Michigan’s groundwater crisis has drawn little attention, but it is a worsening problem for our state. FLOW’s recent groundwater report, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake, spotlights its implications, and calls for a change in state law to protect our groundwater and public health. Click here for the Deep Threats fact sheet.

The lack of urgency in strengthening protection of Michigan’s groundwater is shortsighted. When rivers burned in 1969, federal lawmakers passed the Clean Water Act. When the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, Congress toughened safety requirements for shipping of petroleum products. 

Similarly, Michigan’s Legislature responded rapidly to a major mercury contamination crisis in 1970 and findings about the toxicity of PCBs in 1976. Yet spill after spill of hazardous materials into groundwater has happened for decades in Michigan, and the policy response has been incremental.

This is inexplicable when 45% of the state’s population gets its drinking water from groundwater wells. Groundwater is also critical to agriculture, manufacturing, and even recreation; steady, cool groundwater flow is vital to Michigan’s renowned trout streams, like the Au Sable River.

Michigan Law Views Groundwater as Expendable

Michigan law views groundwater from the vantage point of how much of it we can sacrifice instead of how much we must protect. Rather than establish an overarching protection policy, our statutes treat groundwater as something available for assimilating pollution. Scattered among our laws are provisions allowing differing treatment of groundwater depending on the pollution source–landfills, oil and gas development, underground injection of hazardous wastes, permitted discharges, agricultural pollution, management of contaminated sites, and more.

Michigan should formally adopt a Groundwater Protection Act that calls for protection of groundwater as part of a single, hydrological whole. In connection with streams, lakes, and wetlands, groundwater should be held in trust for the benefit of citizens, protected from pollution or impairment, a critical drinking water source, directly related to public health. The policy should emphasize the state’s primary duty to prevent pollution of groundwater or its connected waters of the state, and to support public education concerning groundwater consistent with this overall policy.

A Groundwater Protection Act is crucial to Michigan’s future. FLOW will ask citizens concerned about the protection of these vital waters to join with us in seeking action by state officials in months to come.

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