Our Drinking Water Lacks the Protection It Deserves


Acclaimed author and FLOW Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey stands on the shore of Lake Michigan’s West Grand Traverse Bay.


Editor’s note: This opinion article was originally published on April 2, 2022, in the Lansing State Journal.

By Dave Dempsey

A natural resource on which nearly half the population of Michigan depends every day is one that most of us rarely think about: Groundwater, and it’s especially critical in mid-Michigan. The tri-county area depends almost exclusively on groundwater as a drinking water source—both from public wells managed by the Lansing Board of Water and Light and the City of East Lansing, and thousands of private wells in outlying areas.

Some 45 percent of Michigan’s population gets drinking water from underground, but because it is out of sight it is often out of mind. Its invisible nature has made groundwater vulnerable to neglect and mismanagement. Michigan is pocked with more than 14,000 groundwater contamination sites, including one of the nation’s largest, a 13 trillion-gallon plume contaminated by the toxic chemical TCE (trichloroethylene). Due to funding limitations, the state is addressing only two percent of these polluted sites this year.

Groundwater is vital globally, too. The salty oceans are not drinkable and constitute approximately 97 percent of all the world’s water. About two percent of all water is fresh water frozen at the poles or in glaciers. Of the remaining one percent, almost all of it is groundwater, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

If Michigan’s groundwater were visible, it would be hard to miss. If combined, all the groundwater in the Great Lakes Basin is approximately equal in volume to Lake Huron—a sixth Great Lake of sorts.

But groundwater is not an underground pool. Instead, it fills the pores and fractures in underground materials such as sand, gravel and other rock—much the same way that water fills a sponge. And it lacks the protection it deserves.

Although 1.25 million private water wells supply drinking water to more than two million Michiganders, there is no regular safety testing of that water. Thousands of these wells are contaminated with nitrates. Michigan is the last holdout among the 50 states in protecting groundwater and public health from 130,000 failing septic systems that discharge human waste.

My organization, For Love of Water, is a nonprofit law and policy center based in Traverse City. Last month we sponsored a webinar on Michigan’s groundwater challenges and opportunities on World Water Day, where scientists and public officials spoke of the urgent need to educate Michiganders about the importance of groundwater.

Learning about groundwater is the necessary first step toward action, and protective action is what Michigan needs to safeguard its groundwater for current and future generations.

Dave Dempsey is senior advisor at FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. He is the author of several books on Michigan’s environment. Learn more about FLOW’s groundwater-protection program, including our latest report and fact sheet.

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