Tag: great lakes

ART MEETS WATER: “Wilderness, Water & Rust: A Journey Toward Great Lakes Resilience” by Jane Elder book talk

Wilderness, Water, and Rust: A Journey toward Great Lakes Resilience asks us to consider what we value about life in the Great Lakes region and how caring for its remarkable ecosystems might help us imagine new, whole futures. Weaving together memories from her life in the upper Midwest with nearly fifty years of environmental policy advocacy work, Jane Elder provides a uniquely moving insider’s perspective into the quest to protect the Great Lakes and surrounding public lands, from past battles to protect Michigan wilderness and shape early management strategies for the national lakeshores to present fights against toxic pollution and climate change. She argues that endless cycles of resource exploitation and boom and bust created a ‘rust belt’ legacy that still threatens our capacity for resilience. The author lays out the challenges that lie ahead and invites us to imagine bold new strategies through which we might thrive.

Register online!

Are we keeping the Great Lakes great? Few are in a better position to tell us than Jane Elder, a veteran of more than 40 years of public advocacy for the Great Lakes. In her new book, “Wilderness, Water and Rust,” she tells vivid stories of being in the front lines of the fight to clean up and restore the Lakes and offers insights on saving the Lakes for generations to come. “While not overlooking setbacks and defeats, Jane, in exquisite prose, provides hope for the Great Lakes, the planet, and ourselves.”
— FLOW senior advisor and author Dave Dempsey

A Conversation with Author Jane Elder:


Tell us what the book is about.

The book is part memoir of environmental issues I have worked on in the Great Lakes region over the course of my career, with a focus on public lands, including wilderness areas, and Great Lakes water quality and ecological health.

It is also a critique of policy—what has worked, what hasn’t, and the challenges we face with advancing positive public policy to protect the environment and public health in these times. A theme that runs through the book is that the region’s boom and bust economic cycles (thus the “rust” part of the title) have hurt both human communities and left behind a legacy of environmental damage, and that we need to break out of that pattern for people and the rest of nature to thrive.

Read the interview here!

The new abnormal: Ice cover and the ecology of the Great Lakes

Why is less Great Lakes ice a bad thing?

This year’s historically low Great Lakes ice coverage has attracted considerable attention. Less has been said, however, about what reduced ice means for the ecology of the Great Lakes. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, effects can be profoundly negative:

  • Aquatic species, including fish, rely on ice for protecting eggs and young. Plankton, an important part of the food chain, are more resilient when protected by ice. Whitefish and lake trout will be forced to compete with warm-water species migrating north with rising temperatures. Declining ice cover could also stress whitefish reproduction in Lake Superior where ice protects eggs from winter storm disturbance.
  • Reduced ice cover leads to increased evaporation, which in turn could lead to drastic reductions in Great Lakes water levels.
  • Nearshore ice sheets buffer coastal structures and infrastructure from winter’s punishing winds and waves. Less ice leaves them more vulnerable to costly damage.
  • Low ice cover fosters increased resuspension of sediments and may contribute to summer algae blooms.
  • Reduced ice cover leads to extreme weather, including increasing intensity and frequency of heavy rainfall and snowfall, including record lake effect snows.
  • Recreational sports, including ice fishing on the Great Lakes and inland lakes, are reduced or eliminated, cutting into culturally important harvests of whitefish, panfish, bass and yellow perch.

“The Great Lakes will continue to warm over the next several decades and despite year-to-year variability, Lake Erie is trending towards an ice-free status during the winter months,” says Dr. Mike McCay, director of the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research. “Even though we have seen the lakes bounce back from adversity before, less ice cover will be a new normal.”

Great Lakes Ice Cover, 1973-2023 (click to play slideshow)

Great Lakes annual maximum ice cover, 1973-2023

How the Great Lakes Will Benefit from Governor Whitmer’s Energy Plan

Originally published October 6, 2023; updated February 29, 2024

In what is among the most comprehensive clean energy initiatives in the country, Michigan has become the first industrialized swing state to enact laws requiring 100 percent of electric power to come from carbon-free sources by 2040. The ambitious legislative agenda, fulfilling Governor Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan, also increases energy efficiency standards, address energy equity in disadvantaged communities, and empowers the Michigan Public Service Commission to consider climate change, affordability, and equity in its decision-making. The passage of the bills will save Michigan ratepayers an estimated $5.5 billion through 2050.

These benefits to Michigan are on top of the energy investments flowing from the federal Inflation Reduction Act that have catalyzed an estimated over $21 billion in new investment in Michigan, helped create almost 16,000 good-paying clean energy jobs, and brought twenty-four major new clean energy manufacturing projects to Michigan – more than any other state.

But these are not the only measurable benefits that the energy transition brings to Michigan. As we celebrate Michigan’s newfound leadership in clean energy, it’s vitally important to underscore the positive impact the energy transition will have on Michigan’s water resources.

Decarbonizing Michigan’s Economy Will Dramatically Improve Water Quality

Governor Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan will not only accelerate Michigan’s clean energy transition and decarbonize our economy, it will provide long-term benefits to Michigan’s water resources.

As we retire fossil fuel-based energy sources and replace them with clean energy technologies – wind and solar power, green hydrogen, electric vehicles, and energy storage devices – we will markedly and measurably reduce the harmful impacts that producing and burning fossil fuels have on our Great Lakes, rivers and streams, and groundwater.

Wind and solar energy are infinite sources of free, clean power. Unlike fossil fuels which are finite, costly, inherently dirty, and cause billions of dollars of negative environmental and health impacts, wind and solar energy are free, clean, and with far fewer impacts to the environment and human health.

Impacts from Thermoelectric Generation

Water and energy have always been highly interdependent. Producing power uses tremendous amounts of water. From the first water wheels used to ground grain 6,000 years ago, through the Roman age of invention where water was moved great distances to irrigate crops and provide drinking water, to the production of energy from hydropower, fossil-fuel, and nuclear power plants, water has always been an essential component of energy

Electricity generated by steam from burning coal or natural gas, and nuclear fission – called thermoelectric generation – accounts for 68 percent of water use in the Great Lakes Region and 74 percent of all water use in Michigan. Thermoelectric generation causes significant, harmful, and destructive direct impacts on our water resources.

Power plants need massive amounts of cooling water to operate. Water pumped from the Great Lakes and their tributary rivers “entrain” or kills millions of fish and aquatic organisms, including early-life-stage fish, eggs, and larvae. Once heated, water released from power plants causes thermal impacts that stress and kill fish and other aquatic organisms. Warm water also can change fish populations, decrease dissolved oxygen levels, propagate algae, and alter “benthic communities” – the broad ecological biome of animals (including crustaceans and mussels), plants, and bacteria that live in the water and the lake bottom.

Impacts from Coal

Michigan’s coal plants are also responsible for the widespread pollution of our Great Lakes. Available data show that Michigan-based coal-fired plants emit approximately 3000 lbs. of mercury – a powerful neurotoxin every year. Coal plants are responsible for 57 percent of all mercury present in the Great Lakes, resulting in official health advisories cautioning the public to limit consumption of Great Lakes fish. In 2021 alone, thermoelectric power plants in Michigan also emitted 64,301 tons of sulfur dioxide, 58,284 tons of nitrogen oxide, and 55,450,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

In addition to these contaminants, coal combustion produces air emissions that contain lead, particulates, and various other heavy metals that are deposited in our lakes, rivers , and streams. Coal combustion also produces fly ash and slag, which have been deposited in unlined landfills for many decades. Recent research has revealed that of the fifty-two known coal ash landfills in Michigan, almost all are leaking heavy metals into Michigan’s groundwater.

Mining coal also consumes huge amounts of water In 2021, 50 to 59 gallons of water were used for each of the 577 million tons of coal mined.

Impacts from Oil and Gas 

There are more than 900,000 active oil and gas wells in the United States. Oil and gas production from shale formations uses 1.5 to 16 million gallons of water for each well. This water becomes contaminated with a variety of chemicals and oil and gas constituents.

Oil and gas produced from shale formations require “hydraulic fracturing,” a process using large volumes of water, chemicals, and sand pumped under high pressure to keep pore spaces open so that oil and gas can be recovered. The drilling process yields contaminated “flow-back” water, as well as naturally occurring brine that is pumped out with the oil and gas. This chemical laden water is then disposed of by pumping it back deep underground.

Burning natural gas produces emissions that include nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter – all of which inevitably find their way into Michigan’s surface waters.

Pipelines transport crude oil and gas to refineries, and refined oil and gas to their end use. Between 1998 and 2017 there were 11,758 pipeline spills in the United States that were classified as “significant” by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Included among them is the most catastrophic pipeline failure in United States history. The Enbridge pipeline rupture near Marshall, Michigan in July 2010, released more than 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into a direct tributary of the Kalamazoo River. The rupture of Enbridge Line 6B resulted in pervasive contamination and massive ecological damage to the waters and surrounding wetlands.

Another oil pipeline now threatens the world’s most valuable fresh surface water system. The 70-year old Line 5, also owned and operated by Enbridge, traverses the Straits of Mackinac at the confluence of Lakes Michigan and Huron. The free spanning underwater pipeline has been repeatedly struck by ship’s anchors and cables dragged by passing vessels have damaged the pipelines and its supports. Line 5 is uniquely vulnerable to multiple impacts that could result in irreversible environmental harm and billions of dollars of damage to the Great Lakes regional economy.

Climate Change and Michigan Waters 

We are only beginning to understand the pervasive impact climate change is having on our lakes, rivers, and other water-dependent resources. Climate change brings specific climate related impacts, risks, and challenges to the protection and management of public water resources.

The combustion of fossil fuels has raised regional temperatures 2.3 degrees since 1951. Warming temperatures destabilize lake, river, and stream ecology, altering conditions and habitat for fish and aquatic organisms. Like the oceans, the Great Lakes are absorbing excess heat. Lake Superior, despite its size, is one of the fastest warming lakes in the world with temperatures increasing 3-4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Warming temperatures are changing our weather. The National Climate Assessment forecasts both increased frequency and severity of storm events in the Great Lakes region. Increased flooding will cause sewer overflows that reach our Great Lakes, increased soil erosion; and more fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides to wash into our streams and rivers.

The Energy/Water Nexus 

We can mitigate or even potentially avoid the most severe effects of climate change by implementing Governor Whitmer’s energy and climate plans. The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy cannot come soon enough.

The benefits of the proposed energy transition to our water resources are not speculative, they are measurable and based on science. Wind and solar energy are now the least expensive new energy infrastructure available worldwide. Every megawatt-hour of wind and solar energy saves 8,270 gallons of water from being used for thermal cooling.

An acre of solar panels producing electricity keeps 121 to 138 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, every year. That same acre of solar panels can power an electric vehicle 40 to 100 times farther than ethanol produced from the same acre of corn. And ethanol production can require up to 865 gallons of water for each gallon of fuel produced.

The benefits of clean energy, significant as they are, pale when compared to the harms that clean energy can help us avoid. The economics of clean energy do not include the difficult to quantify but very real aggregate cost of “negative externalities” – the harmful environmental and health impacts that flow from the use of fossil fuels.

Annual environmental and health damages linked to coal mining, processing, and combustion have been estimated at $365 billion annually (2010 dollars). The annual environmental and health damages from burning fossil fuels have been estimated at up to $970 billion annually.

Globally, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that pollution from fossil fuels cost the world’s economy more than $5.6 trillion in 2022. This amount, roughly equivalent to total annual global energy expenditures, if added to the cost of producing fossil fuels, makes the favorable economics of clean energy technologies undeniable, and an overwhelming and compelling basis to transition from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

Governor Whitmer’s clean energy and climate initiatives redound with multiple benefits to public health, the environment, the business community, and Michigan citizens at large. And thanks to the Governor’s policies that are being advanced today, the largest, most extraordinary fresh surface water system in the world – our Great Lakes – will also enjoy long-term future benefits and be preserved and protected for our future generations.


Evergreen Collaborative, The Michigan Clean Energy Framework, https://5lakesenergy.com/wp content/uploads/2023/08/MI-Clean-Energy-Framework-report.pdf
Climate Power, One Year of Our Clean Energy Boom, July 25, 2023 https://climatepower.us/wp-content/uploads/sites/23/2023/07/Clean-Energy-Boom-Anniversary-Report-1.pdf 
Great Lakes Commission, Annual Report of the Great Lakes Regional Water Use Database, 2021  https://waterusedata.glc.org/pdf/2021-Water-Use-Report-FINAL.pdf 
NRDC, Power Plant Cooling and Associated Impacts: The Need to Modernize U.S. Power Plants and Protect Our  Water Resources and Aquatic Ecosystems, April 2014 https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/power-plant cooling-IB.pdf 
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 2005 Estimates of Anthropogenic Mercury Air Emissions in  Michigan, November 2011 https://www.michigan.gov/media/Project/Websites/egle/Documents/Reports/AQD/mercury/2005-michigan-anthropogenic-mercury inventory.pdf?rev=b56f9f929bad4c229f36f6639b3f07b2 
EPA, Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury, Accessed September 9, 2023 https://www.epa.gov/mercury/health effects-exposures-mercury 
NRDC, Poisoning the Great Lakes: Mercury Emissions from Coal-Fired Power Plants In the Great Lakes Region,  June 2012 https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/poisoning-the-great-lakes.pdf 
U.S. Energy Information Administration, November 10, 2022 https://www.eia.gov/electricity/state/michigan/
Earth Justice, Toxic Coal Ash in Michigan: Addressing Coal Plants’ Hazardous Legacy, May 3, 2023  https://earthjustice.org/feature/coal-ash-states/michigan#:~:text=Michigan%20utilities%20operate%2030%20regulated,of%20the%20state’s%20regulated %20dumpsites
USGS, Methods for Estimating Water Withdrawals for Mining in the United States, 2005  https://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2009/5053/pdf/sir2009-5053.pdf 
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Coal Explained, Accessed October 9, 2023  https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/coal/how-much-coal-is-left.php#:~:text=Based%20on%20U.S.%20coal%20production,would%20last%20about%2021%20years
U.S. Energy Information Administration, The Distribution of U.S. Oil and Natural Gas Wells by Production Rate  December 2022 https://www.eia.gov/petroleum/wells/pdf/full_report.pdf 
USGS, How much water does the typical hydraulically fractured well require? Accessed October 9, 2023  https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/how-much-water-does-typical-hydraulically-fractured-well-require?qt news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products 
EPA, Natural Gas, Accessed October 9, 2023 https://www3.epa.gov/ttnchie1/ap42/ch01/final/c01s04.pdf
Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/data-and-statistics/pipeline/pipeline-incident-20-year-trends  
National Transportation Safety Board, Accident Report, Enbridge Incorporated Hazardous Liquid Pipeline  Rupture and Release Marshall, Michigan July 25, 2010 https://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Reports/PAR1201.pdf 
Petoskey News-Review, History shows record of multiple Straits anchor strikes, May 16, 2019 https://www.petoskeynews.com/story/news/local/2019/05/16/history-shows-record-of-multiple-straits-anchor-strikes/44233105/ 
Enbridge, Inc., Investigation into Disturbances to Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac in May and June of 2020,  August 21, 2020  https://onedrive.live.com/?authkey=%21ANaLBWlYH%2DsOquY&cid=ED235B80C2B9171B&id=ED235B80C2B9171 B%2126489&parId=ED235B80C2B9171B%216332&o=OneUp 
Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments https://glisa.umich.edu/climate-change-in-the-great-lakes-region-references/ 
Phys.Org, Lake Superior is among the fastest-warming lakes on the planet. Climate change may be the culprit,  October 22, 2021 https://phys.org/news/2021-10-lake-superior-fastest-warming-lakes-planet.html
Utility Dive, Renewables would provide cheaper energy than 99% of US coal plants and catalyze a just energy  transition, February 9. 2023 https://www.utilitydive.com/news/renewables-cheaper-energy-than-99-percent-of us-coal-plants-just-energy-transition/642393/ 
NREL, A Retrospective Analysis of the Benefits and Impacts of U.S. Renewable Portfolio Standards, January 2016  https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy16osti/65005.pdf 
Columbia Climate School, Solar Panels Reduce CO2 Emissions More Per Acre Than Trees — and Much More Than  Corn Ethanol, October 26, 2022 https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/10/26/solar-panels-reduce-co2-emissions-more-per-acre-than-trees-and-much-more-than-corn-ethanol/ 
Columbia Climate School, Ethanol’s Impacts on Our Water Resources, March 21, 2011  https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2011/03/21/ethanol%e2%80%99s-impacts-on-our-water-resources/
Epstein, P., et al, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School, February 17, 2011  https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05890.x#:~:text=These%20costs%20are%20external%20to,of%20a%20trillion%20dollars%20annually
Shindell, D., The social cost of atmospheric release, February 25, 2015 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-015-1343-0#/page-1 
International Monetary Fund, IMF Fossil Fuel Subsidies Data: 2023 Update, August 24, 2023 https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WP/Issues/2023/08/22/IMF-Fossil-Fuel-Subsidies-Data-2023-Update-537281#:~:text=Globally%2C%20fossil%20fuel%20subsidies%20were,warming%20and%20local%20air%20pollution

Indiana Wetland Protection Rollback Threatens Great Lakes

A new Indiana law that weakens the state’s wetland protection framework will have repercussions beyond Indiana’s borders.

Indiana’s move follows a U.S, Supreme Court ruling last year that gutted federal wetland protection under the Clean Water Act and gave states leeway to weaken their wetland protections. The ruling removed federal protection for about 50% of the nation’s wetlands. Indiana had already weakened its wetland law in 2021.

Wetlands have multiple benefits. They filter pollutants, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, and reduce flooding by storing and slowly releasing excessive flows.

Because flowing waters cross state boundaries, weakening wetland protection in Indiana will have an impact on the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds.

Indiana’s new move will compound ecological damage sustained by over a century of development. The state has lost an estimated 85% of its original wetland acreage.

The Indiana law that just took effect lowers protections for the most sensitive wetlands in the state, in less developed settings that often contain rare, threatened or endangered species. 

Michigan has a stronger wetland law and program than the federal minimums. The 2023 Supreme Court ruling is having little impact on state protection of Michigan’s wetlands. Similarly, Wisconsin’s expansive wetland protection authority is limiting the impact of the Supreme Court decision.

Where do plastic bags and bottles go to die?

Where do plastic bottles and plastic grocery bags go to die when they’re discarded?

The better question might be, do they ever die?

Studies around the world have shown that many plastics break into small pieces, or microplastics, that persist indefinitely. They clutter the ocean – and the Great Lakes. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 112,000 particles of plastic per square mile of Great Lakes water. And a sampling of Lake Ontario and Lake Superior fish found the “highest concentration of microplastics and other anthropogenic [human-made] microparticles ever reported in bony fish, including 12,442 anthropogenic microparticles in 212 fish from nearshore Lake Ontario, and 3094 in 119 fish from Lake Superior. 35-59% of the particles were microplastics.”

Plastic particles 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller are considered to be microplastics. Studies have found microplastics in the atmosphere, on land, and in oceans and freshwaters. They have also made their way into drinking water and foods intended for human consumption. And from there they enter the human body.

While the specific, causal effects plastics may have on human health are yet unknown and currently being researched, animal studies suggest that plastics and plastic byproducts affect digestive, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems. Plastics may act as both physical and chemical stressors to people, as they enter through the human digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems.

Another study attempted to estimate the global mean rate of human consumption of microplastics, producing a figure of 0.1–5 g of microplastics per week. Variability is high depending on location, age, size, and cultural factors. The high end is roughly equivalent to ingesting a credit card’s weight of different types of plastics every week.

Although we don’t yet know how microplastics affect human health, there are worrisome signals. Preventing human exposure to microplastics should be a priority. Finding substitutes for the microplastics that are intentionally added to agricultural chemicals, paints, cosmetics, and detergent, for example, is critical. For example, scientists are now piloting a system based on biodegradable silk instead.

There is hope – but there is also urgency.

The Great Lakes State Must Protect Fresh Water and Human Health from Untreated Sewage

Editor’s note: Register today! FLOW will host a webinar on Tuesday, March 21, offering legal, scientific, economic, and political perspectives on the urgent need and critical opportunity for Michigan to finally join the rest of the nation in adopting a law to protect public health and fresh water from septic pollution. The online event is free and open to the public. Learn more and register today! Follow FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay current. Also see FLOW’s legislative agenda in Michigan, which highlights the need for a septic code. 

By Skip Pruss, FLOW Legal Advisor

How is it that Michigan, the Great Lakes State, surrounded by the largest, most valuable fresh surface water system in the world, is the only state in the nation without standards to address defective and failing septic systems?

Skip Pruss, FLOW Legal Advisor

Yes, it’s true. The other 49 states recognize that failing and substandard septic systems represent a clear and present danger to public health and the environment. The other 49 states have laws that set minimum standards for the construction, maintenance, and inspection of septic systems for treating human sewage—but remarkably, Michigan has not.

And we know that Michigan’s  neglect has led to widespread surface water and groundwater contamination.

Scientific studies have shown that human fecal contamination can be found in 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that substandard, failing, or nonexistent septic systems are the primary cause. Statewide, up to 26 percent of Michigan’s 1.3 million septic systems at homes and businesses may be failing, with many of those floundering systems located on our Great Lakes shorelines and on our inland lakes and streams. 

Failing septic systems deliver disease-causing pathogens to surface water and groundwater. They can elevate nitrate levels in drinking water, putting infants and pregnant women at risk, and cause harmful algae blooms. Poorly maintained septic systems can result in the need for expensive repairs or replacement, impairing property values. 

It Is Time for Legislative Action

Michigan’s new legislature has the opportunity to accomplish what prior legislatures have been unable or unwilling to do—set legal standards for the reasonable oversight of onsite wastewater treatment systems, as every other state has done. Enacting legislation will help identify failing systems, protect groundwater and drinking water wells, support property values, and reduce contaminated wastewater migrating to our lakes, rivers, and streams.  

The Great Lakes surrounding Michigan hold 95 percent of all available fresh surface water in the United States and 84 percent of all fresh surface water in North America. We are blessed with over 3,200 miles of Great Lakes coastline—the largest freshwater coastline in the world.

Safeguarding our Great Lakes is a deeply shared value. Polling by the International Joint Commission has found overwhelming support (88 percent) for protecting water quality across broad demographic groups and respondents of all ages.

Despite daily indications of bitter polarization in our politics, properly addressing failing septic systems is a rare area of political consensus. Protecting Michigan’s extraordinary water resources is an important area of common ground, bringing citizens together in common purpose and bridging political divides. 

Now is the time.

About the Author

Skip Pruss is a legal adviser with FLOW and formerly directed the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth. You can reach him at pruss@5lakesenergy.com.

New York Lawmakers Introduce Bill Based on FLOW’s Model ‘Public Water, Public Justice’ Act

By Zach Welcker, FLOW Legal Director

FLOW Legal Director Zach Welcker

New York State Senator Rachel May and Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas have introduced companion legislation to enact the Public Water Justice Act, a bill derived from FLOW’s (For Love Of Water’s) model Public Water, Public Justice Act. The proposed legislation, S.238A and A.5104, prohibits the sale of waters of the state unless otherwise specifically authorized and establishes a public water justice fund for royalties collected from persons or entities authorized to sell waters of the state. The fund would be used to achieve a suite of public health and environmental benefits in the State of New York.

New York’s Public Water Justice Act incorporates concepts set forth in FLOW’s Public Water, Public Justice Act—comprehensive model legislation drafted by Jim Olson and FLOW’s legal team in response to the water shutoffs in Detroit and the Flint water crisis. In those cases, many residents were not only denied public water but also forced to buy bottled water from private companies who obtained state-owned water for next to nothing. 

FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood

“It is gratifying to see this legislation move forward in a sister Great Lakes state,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “It makes no sense to allow water bottlers to appropriate our public water, sell it for huge profits, without any benefits accruing to the public.”

Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s Executive Director, said that FLOW’s legal team has been working with New York senate and assembly staff to enact the bill into law. “It is gratifying to see this legislation move forward in a sister Great Lakes state,” Kirkwood said, “It makes no sense to allow water bottlers to appropriate our public water, sell it for huge profits, without any benefits accruing to the public.”

Jim Olson, FLOW’s Founder and Senior Legal Advisor

Jim Olson, the founder of FLOW, who drafted the legislation, stated, “At the end of the day, FLOW works to foster equitable public policy for the common good. With the loss of access to public water from pollution and climate change, underscored by the recent crises in Jackson, Mississippi and hurricane Ian, laws like New York’s proposed Public Water Justice Act will assure public funds from public water to vindicate  the public’s right of access to safe water.”

“At the end of the day, FLOW works to foster equitable public policy for the common good,” said Jim Olson, the founder of FLOW, who drafted the legislation.

While it is unclear how much revenue the proposed legislation would generate in New York, Michigan would raise approximately $250 million per year if it enacted similar legislation.

Combating CAFO Pollution

By Zach Welcker, FLOW Legal Director

On February 16, 2023, FLOW (For Love Of Water) and 10 other environmental groups filed an amicus brief asking the Michigan Supreme Court to strike down an appellate court ruling that prevents the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (“EGLE”) from fulfilling its duty to protect Michigan’s waters from wastes generated by concentrated animal feeding operations (“CAFOs”). CAFOs are essentially industrial livestock operations masquerading as farms. They put meat on the table by employing a process that is equal parts cruel to animals and destructive to the planet.

FLOW Legal Director Zach Welcker. (Photo by John Robert Williams)

A single, large CAFO produces one-and-a-half times more untreated waste than the human sanitary waste produced by the cities of Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Saginaw, Traverse City, and Warren combined.

Our amicus or “friend of the court” brief focuses solely on curbing CAFO pollution. There are roughly 300 CAFOs in Michigan. A single, large CAFOs produces one-and-a-half times more untreated waste than the human sanitary waste produced by the cities of Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Saginaw, Traverse City, and Warren combined.

In order to avoid the costs of transporting all of this untreated waste for proper disposal, CAFOs spread what they can on their land under the auspices of crop fertilization. If they run out of room on their own land, CAFOs “manifest” their untreated waste for disposal on someone else’s field. Plants don’t need or absorb all of the nutrients and contaminants in the waste, so much of it runs off into Michigan’s streams, rivers, and lakes. This is why Lake Erie now turns green with toxic algal blooms every summer and E. coli contamination is widespread in our waterways.

CAFOs are a key reason “why Lake Erie now turns green with toxic algal blooms every summer and E. coli contamination is widespread in our waterways.”

In 2020, EGLE updated its 2005 General Permit for CAFOs in order to enhance protection of Michigan’s waters. Despite having succeeded in substantially diluting more stringent pollution-control requirements during the development of the 2020 Permit, the CAFO industry still was not happy with its new obligations. The Michigan Farm Bureau filed suit, arguing that EGLE cannot change its existing 2005 Permit without undertaking new rulemaking. The court of appeals issued a decision adopting this argument, and EGLE sought review by the Michigan Supreme Court.

A green, soupy Lake Erie from excess nutrients causing a toxic algae bloom.

Our amicus brief explains that, if left unchecked, the appellate court’s ruling will effectively freeze in place the terms of the 2005 Permit because the legislature eliminated EGLE’s rulemaking authority after 2006. Because these terms are inadequate to protect state waters from CAFO pollution, the appellate court decision forces EGLE into permanent noncompliance with its duties under Michigan’s two landmark environmental statutes: the Natural Resource Environmental Protection Act (“NREPA”) and the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (“MEPA”). The decision also creates a constitutional problem because the legislature’s elimination of EGLE’s rulemaking authority under these circumstances violates the legislature’s duty under Article IV, Sec. 52 of the state constitution to protect state waters from impairment.

To be clear, an EGLE victory before the Michigan Supreme Court would not resolve this matter to the satisfaction of FLOW and our allies.

To be clear, an EGLE victory before the Michigan Supreme Court would not resolve this matter to the satisfaction of FLOW and our allies. We ultimately think the 2020 Permit is insufficient to protect Michigan’s waters and intend to resume our separate, currently stayed contested case against EGLE following the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision.

Learn more: See more of FLOW’s original articles on CAFOs.

Keeping Water Public and Protected for All in the Great Lakes State

Photo of children playing at Lake Michigan by Chelsea Bay Dennis.

Editor’s note: Sign up today for FLOW’s twice-monthly e-newsletter for updates on the advancement of these legislative recommendations and take action opportunities in support of keeping water public and protected.

Michigan’s 2023-2024 legislative session in Lansing is a chance to apply long-overdue solutions to the state’s biggest water problems, and FLOW has big ideas on how to ensure the waters of the Great Lakes State are healthy, public, and protected for all.

Capitol of Michigan (Photo credit: David Marvin via http://capitol.michigan.gov/)

Today FLOW is pleased to release our legislative agenda by sharing it directly with lawmakers in the Michigan House and Senate and publicizing it broadly with our partners and supporters to help us advance it. FLOW is calling on Michigan’s 102nd Legislature to:

  • Protect Michigan’s waters and public health from failing septic systems;
  • Hold polluters accountable; and
  • Create a public water trust fund with royalties on bottled water, with the money to be used to prevent shutoffs of household drinking water service and support other water protection needs.

During the last several decades, Michigan has lost its reputation as a leader in the country in water protection. Acting now on these priorities can begin restoring Michigan’s environment in ways that other states would envy.

1. Statewide Septic Code

Septic system: click to enlarge.

The Problem—Michigan is the only U.S. state without a uniform septic code governing the construction, maintenance, and inspection of septic systems. As a result, the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) estimates that roughly 330,000 failing septic systems are polluting ground and surface waters with human fecal microbial waste. In addition to harming our natural resources, this septic contamination poses a serious public health problem to the drinking water of nearly 4 million Michiganders who rely on private wells. 

The Solution—The keys to overcoming more than 30 years of legislative gridlock in passing a statewide septic code are establishing a reasonable inspection schedule, ensuring county health departments have sufficient resources to administer inspections, and providing financial assistance to septic owners who may not be able to afford the cost of septic repairs or replacements.

2. Polluter Accountability Act

Photo by Chelsea Bay Dennis.

The Problem—Over the last three decades, the Michigan Legislature has enacted polluter entitlement laws that prevent state agencies from adequately protecting water resources. These destructive legislative actions include:

Michigan now has 24,000 known contaminated sites, including thousands of known and unknown sources of groundwater and surface water contamination. More than half are “orphaned” sites with no known responsible party, resulting in the state being responsible for assessing and remediating these sites without adequate funding. 

The Solution—The answer is to pass legislation that restores polluter pay, limits the use of “institutional controls” as a cleanup option unless other remedial alternatives would increase exposure to the contaminants at issue, and eliminates Michigan’s “no stricter than federal” law.

3. Michigan Water Trust Fund Act

The Problem—Bottled water plants in Michigan make hundreds of millions of dollars each year selling waters of the state without providing a significant benefit to Michiganders. Michigan has the right and obligation to secure greater benefits for its citizens based on the sale of a publicly owned natural resource. This is especially true when a large and increasing number of Michiganders in both urban and rural communities cannot afford to pay their water bills and face the prospect of water shutoffs.

Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The Solution—The solution is to enact a bill that expressly affirms public ownership of Michigan’s ground and surface waters, create a licensing system for bottled water facilities that generates state revenue through a royalty fee, and channel this revenue into a public trust fund that helps put an end to water shutoffs.

Stay Tuned for Legislative Updates

FLOW will keep you updated on the advancement of these legislative recommendations and provide opportunities to take action in support of keeping water public and protected. Be sure to sign up here for FLOW’s twice-monthly e-newsletter for news, event announcements, and more related to our shared efforts to protect the Great Lakes and groundwater and ensure access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

Good News on Groundwater

Photo: Capitol of Michigan. Credit: David Marvin via http://capitol.michigan.gov/.

Editor’s note: Register today for FLOW’s March 21 groundwater webinar, “The Case for a Statewide Septic Code: Michigan Must Inspect Septic Systems to Protect Fresh Water.”

There is good news in the often-overlooked realm of groundwater protection in Michigan: millions of dollars proposed to study and protect Michigan’s vital underground resource. And FLOW is lifting it up during National Groundwater Awareness Week that runs through March 11.

If approved, Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal, on top of funding appropriated by the Michigan Legislature last year, will enable implementation of many or most of the groundwater data recommendations of the state Water Use Advisory Council (WUAC) to be implemented in the next year. The governor’s proposed budget includes:

  • $23.8 million for the collection and management of data on Michigan’s groundwater. The Governor’s budget proposal notes this will fund activities that “collect data and conduct studies on the state’s underground aquifers.”
  • Funding for the “modernization of legacy information technology systems,” specifically including groundwater protection.
  • Investment in four new positions to handle a backlog of groundwater discharge permits, which limit pollutants allowed to be discharged.

 The $23.8 million is in addition to $10 million the legislature appropriated and the governor approved last year to provide funds to address recommendations included in the 2020 Michigan Water Use Advisory Council report

Proposed Funding Aligns with Michigan Groundwater Table Recommendations

Groundwater tips: Click to enlarge image.

In 2022, the Michigan Groundwater Table—convened by FLOW and comprised of 22 knowledgeable and influential stakeholders from local government, academia, and regulatory agencies—examined the state’s groundwater data needs, concluding, “It is difficult to manage a resource when basic data are lacking and poorly coordinated.” 

The Groundwater Table found that improved data “will not only provide a means of informing and supporting water-related programs, but will also yield technical information, tools, data, assumptions, and decision endpoints used to assist water users in resolving and preventing water conflicts. In so doing, WUAC’s recommendations also will benefit the agricultural community and municipal, county, and township governments.” The Groundwater Table report, in turn, endorsed the Water Use Advisory Council recommendations.

Learn More about FLOW’s Groundwater Program

FLOW is working to inform Michiganders about the critical importance of protecting the state’s groundwater resources. FLOW’s articles, reports, webinars, story map, and podcasts have stressed that while groundwater is out of sight, Michigan’s residents, communities, businesses, organizations, and government cannot afford to let it slip out of mind.

Did you know that groundwater accounts for at least 25% of the total water inflow to the Great Lakes via groundwater inflow into tributaries? Groundwater is vital to Michigan’s public health, agriculture, economy, wetlands, stream ecology, coldwater fisheries, and the Great Lakes.

Register today for FLOW’s groundwater webinar: The Case for a Statewide Septic Code.

Michigan depends on groundwater as a source of drinking water for more than 4 million people, relying on more than 1 million private wells. There are an estimated 24,000 contamination sites in Michigan, most involving groundwater pollution. One site alone has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater. Michigan is the only state that does not have a law protecting groundwater (and surface water) from failing septic systems.

FLOW’s groundwater policy recommendations include increased funding of groundwater data collection and analysis, a law regulating septic systems, bans on chemicals that frequently contaminate groundwater, monies to enable well owners to get tests on the quality of their water, and funding for cleanup of groundwater contamination. 

Learn more on about FLOW’s program to protect Michigan’s groundwater—the Sixth Great Lake beneath Michigan’s ground that is vital to the quality of life and prosperity of Michigan and the Great Lakes.