Do you know where your drinking water comes from?
According to a poll undertaken by the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board in 2018, approximately one-fifth of surveyed residents of the Great Lakes Basin do not.
If the same ratio applies to Michigan, about 1.5 million adult residents of the state are uncertain where the water they drink originates.
During Michigan’s 2021 Drinking Water Awareness Week, May 2-8, filling knowledge gaps is a critical priority. The source of your drinking water is crucial, and so are threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to its contamination.
One surprising fact to many is that 45% of Michigan’s population drinks water from underground sources. Of that share, 1.25 million households with 2.6 million people are served by private wells; 1.7 million more people are served by community wells.
Awareness of that fact is vital for those who use well water. Unlike public water supplies, drinking water from private wells is not routinely 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.
Like all groundwater resources, private water wells are vulnerable to unseen pollution. FLOW has documented some of this pollution in two groundwater reports, including one released this March, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake. Toxic substances, nitrate, chloride, bacteriological, 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. Some contaminants, such as nitrate, do not affect the taste and appearance of drinking water and thus could be consumed without people noticing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that private well users have their water tested annually for contaminants. CDC also recommends keeping household hazardous materials such as paint, fertilizer, pesticides, and motor oil far away from wells.
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.
According to the state, 15 violations of drinking water quality standards detected in community water systems in 2017 involved indicators of fecal coliform, and all were corrected. There were 17 violations of chemical standards that year, two for nitrate, 12 for arsenic, and three for combined radium.
However, the dangerous lead contamination of the Flint public water supply in 2014-2015 exposed 99,000 residents of the city to this neurotoxin. The state and the city of Flint have established a lead exposure registry to identify eligible participants; monitor health, child development, service utilization, and ongoing lead exposure; improve service delivery to lead-exposed individuals; and coordinate with other community- and federally funded programs in Flint.
Many Michiganders drink bottled water—some as a short-term replacement for contaminated public or private water supplies, but far more for 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 some of Nestlé’s operations—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 health. You can learn more about FLOW’s efforts to protect groundwater here on our website.