Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Crisis to Protect Drinking Water, the Economy, and the Great Lakes

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

For over three years, FLOW has analyzed and reported on one of the biggest gaps in Michigan’s environmental protection safety net—groundwater protection. Now, during National Groundwater Awareness Week 2021, we are reaffirming and expanding upon our call for stronger state groundwater protection policies and actions. 

Today we’re also releasing our new report, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake. Click here for a Key Facts sheet.

The stakes are too high not to act. Groundwater supplies 45% of Michigan’s population with drinking water—much of that from 1.25 million private wells that are not routinely monitored. For those who drink from these wells, groundwater contamination is an often-invisible threat.

Groundwater contamination is widespread. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) says there are more than 14,000 contamination sites whose cleanups are unfunded, underfunded, or on hold. At the current rate of funding, it will take decades to clean up all of these sites—while more polluted parcels are added to the list.

One obvious reason for inadequate groundwater protection is that groundwater is out of sight. Problems caused by improper management of wastes in Michigan typically aren’t diagnosed until drinking water wells are polluted, contamination seeps from groundwater into lakes and streams, or pollution vaporizes into buildings, including residences.

Another reason for failures in Michigan groundwater protection is fragmented government authority. No groundwater focal point exists in state government. Several programs within EGLE touch on groundwater pollution prevention and cleanup, while other agencies, including the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, deal with aspects of groundwater stewardship. Some states address this problem by establishing overarching groundwater policies and coordinating mechanisms.

Our state and national groundwater problems are nothing new. Some contaminated sites were created a century ago, and significant taxpayer-funded groundwater cleanups have been going on for almost 50 years in Michigan. This makes inadequate groundwater policies all the more inexcusable.

We do appreciate the limited progress that has been made in Michigan since our 2018 groundwater report, including that:

  • Michigan has become one of the few states to adopt health-protective drinking water standards for PFAS, a toxic contaminant found in groundwater across Michigan.
  • The Legislature approved substantial contamination cleanup funding from the Renew Michigan Fund.
  • Governor Whitmer has proposed a $35 million fund to assist homeowners in replacing failing septic systems.

These actions, while helpful, fall far short of what is needed to safeguard our groundwater. Our new report, Deep Threats, proposes a host of reforms ranging from polluter liability, protective cleanup standards, penalties for groundwater damages, empowerment of citizens to seek relief when their groundwater is contaminated, and ultimately, a holistic Groundwater Protection Act.

Michigan prides itself as the Great Lakes State. But it cannot fulfill that destiny unless and until it conserves and protects its groundwater now and for future generations.

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