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.
“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”
These (slightly paraphrased) words of the English poet Coleridge from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” describe the saltwater of the seas. But today they could apply to some areas of Michigan, whose drinking water sources are not salt water, but freshwater.
During national Drinking Water Week (May 3-9) it’s worth observing the sad irony that in Michigan, which is surrounded by an endowment of 20% of the world’s freshwater in the Great Lakes, there are communities where people don’t have access to clean, affordable, safe drinking water.
The most appalling example is the City of Detroit, whose drinking water is unavailable to tens of thousands of residents whose service has been shut off. This unacceptable health hazard is the result of an inhumane policy that automatically shuts off water for delinquent payment of bills. Sister Great Lakes cities Chicago and Milwaukee have adopted policies forbidding similar shutoffs. Until Detroit residents have access to the city’s water, they will be unable to protect themselves from COVID-19 through handwashing or benefit from the same in-home water most of us take for granted.
But the denial of access to clean, safe drinking water is not limited to customers in the cities of Detroit or Flint, where lead poisoned the water supply six years ago. Across the state, private water wells are contaminated by such toxic chemicals as PFAS and nitrates. FLOW’S 2018 groundwater report showed that many rural water wells are contaminated with nitrates, the result of animal waste and nitrogen fertilizer application as well as failing septic systems. Between 2007 and 2017, of drinking water samples tested by state government’s environmental laboratory, 19% were contaminated with nitrates. Nitrates threaten the health of infants and there is growing evidence they may pose cancer risks. With no local or statewide program in place to routinely test private water wells, many well users may be exposed to drinking water contaminants and never know it until their health is compromised.
Public drinking water treatment and delivery systems are nearing or exceeding their design lives. In simple terms, they’re outliving their usefulness, and there is no plan to raise the funds to replace or upgrade them.
These holes in our drinking water systems are the result of federal and state government neglect. According to a 2017 report, the federal government’s contribution to water infrastructure capital spending has dropped precipitously over the past 30 years from 63 percent in 1977 to a meager 9 percent in 2014. Similarly, state governments have fallen short in providing adequate assistance. The eight states of the Great Lakes region face over $77 billion in estimated water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years. This crisis is compounded as many communities already face unaffordable water rates and struggle to maintain already weak infrastructure. In Michigan, the annual gap between available funding and water infrastructure is conservatively estimated at $800 million.
There are few political risks for public officials who champion a funding solution to our clean water woes. A recent national survey found that 84% of Americans support increasing the federal investment in our water infrastructure—and 73% support investing in water infrastructure to increase resilience to climate change, even when told this could cost more than $1.27 trillion.
One of the co-benefits of investments in water infrastructure is job creation. Upgrading and building drinking water treatment facilities would create thousands of jobs in Michigan alone. In the wake of the pandemic-caused economic collapse, creating water infrastructure projects is imperative.
During this national Drinking Water Week, we must focus on the need to rebuild our drinking water infrastructure. Michigan is a water-rich state, and its residents deserve access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. All of its residents.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are driving Michigan’s latest surface and groundwater crisis, infiltrating public waters with what the media and others describe as “emerging” contaminants. It turns out, however, that this class of persistent fluorinated chemicals, known as “forever” chemicals due to their extraordinarily strong bonds, is anything but emergent.
In fact, the responsible chemical manufacturers (DuPont, 3M, and six others), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) have known for decades about the toxicity of PFAS, adverse health effects on humans and the environment, and persistent nature of this family of 5,000+ chemicals. In 2017, the Pentagon identified 401 military sites with known or potential releases of these chemicals.
Complex litigation and class action lawsuits now decades old involving former DuPont employees, 3M, and other manufacturers established causation and linked adverse human impacts to known scientific toxicological effects. Just watch the film The Devil We Know for a gut-wrenching look at what happens to animals, humans, families, and communities poisoned by PFAS contamination when chemical manufacturers and regulatory agencies duplicitously cooperate, ignore science, and continue to produce these chemicals that are ubiquitously found in our food, bodies, drinking water, clothes, and other consumer products sold around the globe.
The most commonly known PFAS-containing household products include Scotchgard®, Teflon®, and Gore-Tex®. PFAS chemicals can be found just about everywhere on the planet, including in mammals in remote Arctic regions. How vast a problem is this? Vast and unprecedented. “An estimated five million to 10 million people in the United States may be drinking water laced with high levels of the chemicals,” according to the New York Times. And an alarming ninety-eight percent of Americans are estimated to have some level of these fluorinated chemicals in their blood.
In 2016, the EPA set a non-enforceable health advisory for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) levels in drinking water at a combined 70 parts per trillion (ppt). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, however, have stated repeatedly that exposure to even lower concentrations may pose health risks. Despite all that we know, in 2019 Americans still have no federal drinking water standard and no federal cleanup standard to protect communities from harmful health effects from these forever chemicals.
At the State Level
Without federal leadership to set drinking water and cleanup standards, and Superfund polluter liability, the states have to fend for themselves to address a nationwide crisis affecting everything from food, drinking water, wastewater, public health, wildlife, commercial household products, and industry processes. States including Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Texas, Vermont, and Washington have or are in the process of developing policies to regulate drinking water and cleanup for this class of toxic chemicals. And another 11 states—Alabama, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—are considering following suit, according to Bloomberg Environment analysis (check out Safer States’ bill tracker to see what’s happening in your state).
In Michigan, DEQ scientist Robert Delaney warned the state about the PFAS health crisis as early as 2012 in a seminal report that was largely ignored. That same year, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a “Do Not Eat” fish advisory near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. Given that these chemicals can bioaccumulate in aquatic ecosystems resulting in higher levels in fish tissue, Michigan issued a health advisory for surface waters at 11 to 12 ppt.
With the discovery of PFAS at Wurtsmith Air Force Base and post-Flint crisis, the State of Michigan launched the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) in 2017 to investigate the drinking water systems, wastewater treatment plants, schools, and landfills across the state. The more the State of Michigan looked, the more PFAS-contaminated sites have been found.
In January 2018, the DEQ issued an emergency clean-up standard at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) in groundwater used for drinking water in Michigan. To date, the State of Michigan has tested 1,400 community water systems, and 90 percent of them have no detectable PFA levels. The 10 percent, however, are a significant concern. An executive order signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer strengthened MPART(the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team) so that it can efficiently inform the public about toxic contamination threats, locate additional PFAS contamination zones, and take action on behalf of Michigan residents, notably by protecting their drinking water supplies from the family of chemicals.
But more needs to be done. Now.
State attorneys general, for example, need to further collaborate and take leadership in building a nationwide coalition to initiate litigation and demand federal agency action for drinking water and cleanup standards. In 2018, Minnesota’s Attorney General won an $850 million settlement with 3M, a manufacturer of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
Where Things Stand
EPA’s recent release of a PFAS Action Plan is the latest example of government foot dragging in the extreme. The plan appears designed to slow the federal response and shift the burden to the states to set their own standards.
On March 1, Michigan’s U.S. Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, along with ten other Senators, introduced legislation to regulate PFAS as a “hazardous substance” under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known also as CERCLA or Superfund. Under the bill, the EPA would have regulatory enforcement powers over PFAS and could require polluters to pay for PFAS groundwater contamination and clean up. U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell introduced identical legislation in the House (HB 545). On March 5, Governor Whitmer issued a supplemental budget request for $120 million in clean water funds, including $30 million for PFAS research and clean up.
Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director
With a family of 5,000 chemicals infused in everything from clothes to household products to manufacturing, federal and state toxicologists and risk experts are working hard to understand and evaluate the science of exposure and health impacts, and to determine what standards define an acceptable risk. In Michigan, leading toxicologists include among others Dr. Rick Rediske, Carol Miller, Rita Loch-Caruso, Courtney Carignan, and Steve Safferman. Their findings are critical to informing and resolving current state and federal policy debates on safe drinking water and clean up levels.
This latest surface and groundwater crisis is a reminder of how interconnected we are, how vulnerable the water cycle is, and how national chemical policy reform is urgently needed to protect human health and the environment before chemicals are put into commerce and adversely contact with human and the natural environment.
Anyone who visits Traverse City can easily see how important freshwater is to this region. The iconic Grand Traverse Bay, numerous inland lakes and the Boardman River winding through downtown make freshwater an essential part of Traverse City’s landscape and culture. Our unique freshwater resources provide remarkable recreational opportunities that bring thousands of visitors to the shores of Traverse City every summer. One of the major benefits from our freshwater that often goes unnoticed, is its use as tap water in our everyday lives.
Even as a longtime resident who is very passionate about water, I had to ask myself, do I know where the water from my tap comes from? Well, if you live in the city limits of Traverse City, the answer is the Grand Traverse East Bay (“East Bay”). Traverse City pumps an average of 5.19 million gallons a day from East Bay to supply the growing demand for freshwater. This freshwater is taken out of East Bay through a steel and wood crib that sits about 40 feet below the water surface off the Old Mission Peninsula. The water is pumped to the City’s water treatment plant, then distributed through roughly 120 miles of pipes to serve an ever-growing customer base of approximately 40,000 people.
Planning the Future
Given East Bay’s significant role as the source of Traverse City’s tap water, it is important for us as a community to become engaged in planning for the future of East Bay and the surrounding Grand Traverse watershed.
This is no small task. The Grand Traverse watershed is approximately 976 square miles, covering portions of Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Antrim, and Kalkaska counties, including 132 miles of shoreline. However, as vast as those numbers might seem, it is imperative that we understand and manage our freshwater at the watershed level to properly care for East Bay and the source of our tap water. A Watershed is defined as an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall into a common outlet.Watershed protection is critical to the long-term health of East Bay because the majority of East Bay’s water comes from tributaries throughout the watershed, including 180 billion gallons of water per year from the Elk Rapids Chain of Lakes.
Fortunately, The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay and other organizations in the Northern Michigan area implemented a Grand Traverse Bay Watershed Protection plan in 2003. The Protection Plan sets six broad goals that range from protecting the integrity of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems within the watershed to improving the quality of water resources within Grand Traverse Bay and its watershed. In addition, the 2003 Watershed Protection Plan has resulted in more than $7 million worth of watershed management projects, and has “prevented more than 16,230 tons of sediment, 9300 lbs. of phosphorous and 14,940 lbs. of nitrogen from entering the Grand Traverse Bay and its watershed.”
What Can You Do?
This community-driven Watershed Protection Plan plays a crucial role in our management of East Bay, helping protect against issues such as invasive species, storm water run-off, and wetland protection. The Watershed Protection Plan from 2003 is currently being updated with citizen input by the Watershed Center. Although the Watershed Center’s community meetings regarding the new protection plan have already occurred, the Watershed Center is still accepting public input until July 31st through a public survey.
Julius Moss, Legal Intern
I encourage everyone to take a few minutes this weekend, reflect on the importance of water in our area, and share your ideas and concerns with the Watershed Center. We are fortunate to have an abundance of freshwater around us, we must continue to protect our valuable resource and together as a community prepare for the future of East Bay, the Grand Traverse Watershed, and our tap water.
In 1949, renowned conservationist and fellow Midwesterner Aldo Leopold wrote about a land ethic in a seminal piece published in his classic, A Sand County Almanac. He wrote: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
These powerful words stir deep meaning as we contemplate the future of water in this century and tackle the growing global water crisis. According to MIT researchers, some 52 percent of the world’s projected 9.7 billion people will live in water-stressed regions by 2050. These statistics are hard to fathom and may seem a long time away. However, one thing is clear. The climate is changing as we witness unprecedented severe weather events within our own borders from successive powerful hurricanes to bomb cyclones to long-term droughts to massive flooding. And our century-plus-old water infrastructure systems are taking a beating.
This brings me to my main point. When it comes to the future of water, there is one thing on which we all can agree: all humans need access to clean, safe, affordable drinking water.
So how do we get there? How do we embrace a new water ethic that values water above all else? These are the vitally important questions that we as citizens of the Great Lakes must ask ourselves because we are stewards of 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water.
As a first step, let’s take stock of the numerous wake-up calls here in the Great Lakes over the last three years. Top of mind is Flint’s horrific lead crisis, Detroit’s ongoing water shutoffs, Toledo’s toxic algae water emergency, and growing cases of legacy groundwater contamination sites across the region (e.g., Wolverine). What all of these avoidable tragedies have in common is our collective failure to safeguard our drinking water sources. We can no longer afford to have a relationship with water where we treat it as a commodity or industrial dumping ground. Time has run out.
Logically, a water-rich region like the Great Lakes would have a deeply ingrained water ethic. On the other hand, maybe it’s the very fact that we have so much that causes us to take water for granted. Nevertheless, the moment has come for us to embrace a new water ethic; one that places water at the center of all decisions about food, energy, land-use, transportation, and community.
Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director
As Leopold explains, “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.”
This must be our resolve going forward if we are serious about protecting these majestic waters.
Fort Gratiot County Park north of Port Huron bustles for a little more than three months of the year, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Large groups occupy the gazebos, families snatch up all the picnic tables, teens play Frisbee in the sand while kids rule a small playground, and the smell of cooking meat is inescapable. These are all fairly typical of Great Lakes shoreline parks.
What distinguishes the park is a memorial. It commemorates not a politician or general but 22 men who died for water, Lake Huron water specifically. While honoring the dead, it expresses ambivalence inherent in the fulfillment of an institutional dream that has unintended consequences.
The project that took the lives of the 22 men on December 11, 1971 had been a dream of the Detroit water department since the late 1800s. The water supplied by the utility’s intake in the Detroit River was adequate to meet the city’s needs, but even then, there was thought of population growth to the north. That would require more water. By virtue of both proximity and quality, Lake Huron was the choice for the new water source. A point five miles offshore from what is now the county park was chosen for the intake.
The memorial consists of three features: a plaza of bricks etched with the names of the loved ones who perished in the disaster and other individuals and groups who purchased and contributed them; the statue of a symbolic project worker; and a state historical marker. The last is especially noteworthy. It is literally two-faced. The two sides of the marker could not be more different in tone.
One side stresses the tragic human losses and the terrible power of the explosion: “… [A] shotgun-like blast claimed the lives of twenty-two men working on a water intake tunnel beneath the bed of Lake Huron. A pocket of methane trapped within a layer of ancient Antrim shale fueled the explosion. An exhaustive inquiry determined that drilling for a vertical ventilation shaft from the lake’s surface had released the trapped gas…The blast created a shock wave with a speed of 4,000 miles an hour and a force of 15,000 pounds per square inch. Witnesses reported seeing debris fly 200 feet in the air from the tunnel’s entrance.”
The other side emphasizes the project itself as a triumph of humankind: “In 1968, to serve the water needs of a growing population, the Detroit Metro Water Department began work on the Lake Huron Water Supply Project. This massive feat involved erecting a submerged intake crib connected to a six-mile intake tunnel beneath Lake Huron. The mechanical mole that dug the 16-foot wide tunnel bored through the bedrock beneath the lake at a rate of 150 feet a day. The project excavated more than one billion pounds of rock. The water treatment plant pumped clean water into an 82-mile system of water mains supplying Detroit and Flint. When finished in 1973, the $123 million system boasted a capacity of 400 million gallons a day.”
One has to wonder whether this mentality was partially culpable. Pride in a monumental public works project may have promoted hubris, or contributed to denial by the managers if someone pointed out the danger. Carelessness or ignorance may also have been to blame. Whatever the cause, 22 people tragically lost their lives in the public service of providing clean drinking water.
Natural forces always surprise us, be they large lakes or ancient methane.
What are regulatory agencies doing to fix the problem?
Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting an investigation over the steps taken to address Flint’s drinking water issues following State Representative Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and State Minority Leader Jim Ananich’s (D-Flint) written requests. Along with the EPA investigation, Michigan legislators are pushing for a review of the controversy over the EPA’s oversight on Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).
State Representatives Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) and Phil Phelps (D-Flushing) assert that MDEQ withheld information on the water quality from the Flint River in order to meet federal drinking water quality standards. The legislators are also requesting for the dismissal of Dan Wyant as the Director of the MDEQ.
What went wrong?
Flint’s drinking water crisis began in April of 2014 when the city of Flint decided to stop receiving their drinking water from the Detroit water supply. The plan was to switch over to a new water supplier (Karegnandi Water Authority). The high water rates imposed on Flint residents and budget cuts in the Flint financial management plan were the reasons behind the switch in suppliers.
But there was a problem: Karegnandi will not be done constructing their new water lines to draw water from Lake Huron until sometime in 2016. In the meantime, Flint officials decided to temporarily draw their drinking water from the Flint River. However, as soon as the switch was made from the Detroit water supply to the Flint River, Flint residents complained about the odor and coloration of their drinking water.
Resident complaints grew, and ‘boiling advisories’ were soon issued to kill off harmful bacteria in the water due to the aging water lines. Water tests soon revealed high levels of a chlorination byproduct linked to cancer and other associated health problems.
Even with the drinking water advisory notices, residents were told by city officials that the water was safe to drink.
In September of 2015 – over a year after extracting water from the Flint River – a group of researchers from Virginia Tech tested hundreds of water samples and found 40% of the samples to contain high levels of lead. Due to the corrosive nature of the Flint River water, lead from the aging pipes was leaching into the City’s drinking water, and blood tests of Flint children showed elevated lead levels.
These results clearly indicated that Flint had to stop receiving their drinking water from the Flint River, and reconnect to the Detroit water supply. The switch was made October 16, 2015 to the Detroit water supply with the help of $9.35 million authorized by Governor Rick Snyder.
Is the problem fixed?
The problem to Flint’s water crisis is not resolved. Even after three weeks with the city of Flint reconnected to the Detroit water supply, advisories are being given to hold off on drinking the tap water unless there is an installed water filter. Leaching of lead into the drinking water from old pipes is still possible because the protective layer to prevent corrosion in the pipes is worn away.
Flint residents are also facing the issue of water shutoffs. Many Flint residents stopped paying their water bills once they found out their water was not drinkable. But after Flint reconnected with the Detroit water supply, the city started notifying those residents that they will issue shut offs if bills are not paid.