Tag: groundwater

Michigan Legislature on Wednesday Will Consider Bill to Control Waste from Septic Systems

Editor’s note: FLOW supports the consideration of newly introduced legislation to control septic system sewage and looks forward to helping strengthen the bill’s provisions to ensure the strongest possible protections for public health and public waters. Please read the article, and use the links to contact the bill’s co-sponsors using the information below to express your support.


Wednesday marks an important moment in the decades-long effort to protect Michigan’s public health, wells, and water from pollution caused by failing septic systems. At 10:30 a.m. on Weds., Sept. 28, a state legislative committee will take up a bill requiring inspection of septic systems at the time a property is sold.

FLOW encourages the public to contact the bill’s co-sponsors—Rep. Yaroch and Rep. Rendon—to express support for their legislation to protect public health and public waters.

The House Committee on Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation will hear testimony on House Bill 6101, which was introduced by Rep. Jeff Yaroch, R-Macomb County, and Rep. Daire Rendon of Lake City, in Missaukee County. While the committee bill is not expected to vote on the measure Wednesday, the hearing could lay the groundwork for action after the November election, during the lame-duck session, or early in the 2023 legislative session. FLOW encourages the public to contact the bill’s co-sponsors—Rep. Yaroch and Rep. Rendon—to express support for their legislation to protect public health and public waters.

Michigan is the only state lacking a law to require inspection of septic systems. It is an urgent priority, with an estimated 130,000 failing septic systems in Michigan releasing approximately 9.4 billion gallons of poorly or untreated sewage into the soil and environment each year.

Michigan is the only state lacking a law to require inspection of septic systems. An estimated 130,000 failing septic systems in Michigan each year release approximately 9.4 billion gallons of poorly or untreated sewage into the soil and environment.

How Did We Get Here on Septic?

For two decades, proponents of the legislation have unsuccessfully attempted to secure passage by the legislature of such a law. FLOW and many of our allied organizations support a statewide septic code, working for years to lay the groundwork for passage. FLOW supports the introduction of H.B. 6101 and looks forward to helping strengthen the bill’s provisions to ensure the strongest protections for public health and public waters.

One of the witnesses scheduled to testify on Wednesday is Dr. Joan Rose, a Michigan State University researcher and microbiologist, who co-authored a study finding human fecal indicator bacteria in every river tested in a 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula. 

Dr. Joan Rose, a Michigan State University researcher and microbiologist, will testify Wednesday on the septic bill.

Rose was a key presenter at the Michigan Septic Summit, hosted in November 2019 by FLOW and our partners and allies and attended by over 150 public health experts, scientists, local government representatives, nonprofit organizations, and interested citizens. At the Septic Summit, Dr. Rose spoke about her study’s finding on septic pollution.

The results were clear, Rose said. “The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria in the water. If we want to keep E. coli and other pathogens out of our waterways, we need to address the problem of septic systems that may be failing to adequately treat our wastewater.”

FLOW continues to educate and empower the public on the need for a statewide septic system policy in order to protect public health, local communities, lakes, and ecosystems—especially groundwater, the source of drinking water for 45% of Michigan’s population.

Learn More

To learn more, dive into FLOW’s original articles, videos, and other content on the need to stop septic pollution, including materials published Sept. 19-23 during SepticSmart Week, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency annual educational initiative, at www.ForLoveOfWater.org and on FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

SepticSmart: Can Michigan Move from Last to First?

Editor’s note: During SepticSmart Week, which runs through Friday, FLOW is sharing updates on efforts to protect fresh water and public health from uncontrolled septic system waste, as part of an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants. (If you are unsure about what a septic system is or how it works, start here).

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest articles, videos, and fact sheets. In case you missed it, here is additional coverage this week from FLOW.


For a long time, Michigan was regarded as an environmental leader among the states.  We were the first state to ban the pesticide DDT, the first in the Great Lakes region to limit phosphorus pollution to protect sensitive waters like Lake Erie, and the first to create a trust fund from oil and gas revenues to buy public recreational and scenic land.

But there’s a big gap in Michigan’s body of environmental law.

We are the only state without a sanitary code that applies to septic systems—despite knowing that pollution from failing septic systems is detected in scores of rivers and lakes across Michigan.

Click here to learn how a conventional septic system works. (Click image to see larger version).

The link is clear, said microbiologist Dr. Joan Rose of Michigan State University. She led a study that sampled 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula, looking for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta.

The results were clear, Rose said. “The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria in the water. If we want to keep E. coli and other pathogens out of our waterways, we need to address the problem of septic systems that may be failing to adequately treat our wastewater.”

Closing the gap should be an urgent priority for Michigan policymakers. State law needs to require periodic pumping and inspection of septic systems and replacement of those found to be failing.

But Michigan shouldn’t be satisfied with a law that does just the basics. We should add money to a new state low-interest loan program assisting homeowners with the cost of replacing those failing systems. And we should bump up public education so that more Michigan residents know about the problem and solutions.

If we’re going to be an environmental leader again, we can no longer refrain from sanitary code legislation.


Learn More about Why Michigan Must Move from Last to First on Control of Septic Waste

Here is today’s SepticSmart guidance from NatureChange, FLOW, and partners: 

Michigan’s Lack of Septic Maintenance Requirements Threatens Public Health (One-minute trailer)

Flushing the Future-The Challenge of Failing Septic Systems (16-minute video)

 

Get SepticSmart to Stop Pollution, Save Money

Image courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Editor’s note: During SepticSmart Week, which runs through Friday, FLOW is sharing updates on efforts to protect fresh water and public health from uncontrolled septic system waste, as part of an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants. Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest articles, videos, and fact sheets. In case you missed it, here is additional coverage this week from FLOW: SepticSmart Week: Progress on Protecting Public Health and Fresh Water and SepticSmart: Leelanau County Board Wisely Votes to Protect Fresh Water and Public Health from Septic Pollution.


Michiganders who rely on septic systems to treat and discharge their sewage don’t need to wait for a state law requiring them to maintain those systems. Their voluntary acts and practices can help prevent further groundwater and surface water pollution from failing and malfunctioning septic systems, and save them money and headaches too.

Most importantly, owners of homes with septic systems should have tanks pumped and examined at least once every three years. If the inspection yields evidence of a failing system, the tank should be replaced. Replacing failing systems is expensive – but the cost of not doing so includes risking the health of the household if a drinking water well is in the path of the slowly moving waste. It also puts neighbors and recreational users of contaminated streams at risk from fecal bacteria and household chemicals.

The State of Michigan is launching a $35 million low-interest loan program to assist homeowners in defraying the cost of septic system replacement.

U.S. EPA–Top 10 Ways to be a Good Septic System Owner (Click for larger version).

Top 10 Ways to Be a Good Septic Owner

Other SepticSmart quick tips on protecting your septic system from failure:

  • Have your system inspected every three years by a qualified professional or according to your local health department’s recommendations.
  • Have your septic tank pumped, when necessary, generally every three to five years.
  • Avoid pouring harsh products (e.g., oils, grease, chemicals, paint, medications) down the drain.
  • Make efficient use of water and do not operate several water-intensive appliances at the same time. Doing otherwise can lead to a septic system backup into your house.
  • Keep the surface over a septic system drain field clear. Roots and heavy objects can disrupt the treatment of waste in the septic system.
  • For the full list of Top 10 Ways to Be a Good Septic Owner, click here or on the image.

Have your septic tank pumped, when necessary, generally every three to five years. Source: U.S. EPA. (Click for larger version).

If all homeowners with septic systems follow these tips and others, their potential bill for system replacement will be lower, and Michigan’s public waters will be cleaner.

Scientific studies have found human fecal contamination affecting 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that substandard, failing, or nonexistent septic systems are the primary driver of human fecal bacteria found in our rivers and streams.

FLOW’s action on septic system pollution began with our 2018 groundwater report, The Sixth Great Lake, which emphasized that in addition to releasing an estimated 9.4 billion gallons of poorly or untreated sewage into the soil and environment each year, failing septic systems release household chemicals that residents pour down their drains. Our report called for a uniform statewide sanitary code in Michigan.

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates. To get you started, here is today’s tip from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reminding all of us to Protect It and Inspect It!

 

SepticSmart: Leelanau County Board Wisely Votes to Protect Fresh Water and Public Health from Septic Pollution

Image courtesy of Leelanau.gov.


Editor’s note: This opinion article by FLOW Legal Advisor Skip Pruss was originally published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle on Sept. 4, 2022. During SepticSmart Week, which runs through Friday, FLOW is sharing updates on efforts to protect fresh water and public health from uncontrolled septic system waste, as part of an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants. Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest articles, videos, and fact sheets. In case you missed it, here is additional coverage this week from FLOW: SepticSmart Week: Progress on Protecting Public Health and Fresh Water and Get SepticSmart to Stop Pollution, Save Money.


By Skip Pruss, FLOW Legal Advisor

In August, the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners voted to task the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department with drafting an ordinance requiring the inspection of septic systems upon the transfer or sale of a home. The bipartisan vote endorsing this ordinance came after years of rancorous debate and unsuccessful attempts at passage.

Skip Pruss, FLOW Legal Advisor

The vote was a hopeful sign of progress, demonstrating an understanding that malfunctioning septic systems can affect surface water and groundwater locally and statewide, potentially burdening communities with avoidable harmful economic, health and environmental outcomes.

Scientific studies have found human fecal contamination affecting 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that substandard, failing, or nonexistent septic systems are the primary driver of human fecal bacteria found in our rivers and streams. A study this year found that as many as 27 percent of all septic systems in Michigan households may be failing.

Scientific studies have found human fecal contamination affecting 100% of our river systems in the Lower Peninsula and that as many as 27 percent of all septic systems in Michigan households may be failing.

The Great Lakes surrounding Michigan hold 95 percent of all fresh surface water in the United States and 84 percent of all fresh surface water in North America. Leelanau County, a peninsula within a peninsula, has the most freshwater shoreline of any county in the Lower Peninsula.

Remarkably, Michigan, seated at the very heart of the Great Lakes, is the only state without a state law setting minimum standards for the construction, maintenance and inspection of septic systems. Counties and local governments have had to step up, enacting local ordinances in recognition that a septic system inspection requirement would help identify failing systems, protect groundwater, reduce contaminated wastewater migration to our beautiful lakes and protect property values.

Remarkably, Michigan, seated at the very heart of the Great Lakes, is the only state without a state law setting minimum standards for the construction, maintenance and inspection of septic systems. Counties and local governments have had to step up, enacting local ordinances.

The good news is that, despite daily indications of bitter polarization in our politics, our community’s concern for safeguarding our Great Lakes is a deeply shared value, an important area of common ground that bridges the political divide — as affirmed by the vote of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners. The State of Michigan and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also have proclaimed Sept. 19-23 to be SepticSmart Week and are providing outreach materials encouraging homeowners and communities to inspect and maintain their septic systems.

For Love of Water (FLOW), the Traverse City-based law and policy center, has focused on the protection of groundwater and its relationship to Great Lakes water quality. FLOW’s recent work includes creating and moderating the Michigan Groundwater Table, an 18-month collaboration among local government organizations, state agencies, environmental and justice organizations and Michigan’s universities to identify key groundwater-protection strategies and make recommendations for their implementation (See related storymap here).

FLOW continues to focus on the protection of groundwater and its relationship to Great Lakes water quality.

Among the findings of the Groundwater Table is that septic system performance writ large is, in fact, an infrastructure issue.

With the influx of state and federal funding targeted at water infrastructure support, this may be a particularly opportune time to revisit statewide solutions, including provisions for low-income assistance to address substandard systems.

Meanwhile, hats off to the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners for recognizing that protection of this extraordinary, globally unique natural endowment that is our Great Lakes is an environmental, economic and public health imperative.

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.


Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates. To get you started, here is today’s tip from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reminding all of us: Don’t Strain Your Drain! 

SepticSmart Week: Progress on Protecting Public Health and Fresh Water

Graphic courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Editor’s note: During SepticSmart Week, which runs through Friday, FLOW is sharing updates on efforts to protect fresh water and public health from uncontrolled septic system waste, as part of an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants. 

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the latest articles, videos, and fact sheets. In case you missed it, here is additional coverage this week from FLOW for:


U.S. EPA–Top 10 Ways to be a Good Septic System Owner (Click on image for larger version).

Michigan’s lack of a statewide sanitary code ranks the state dead last in preventing pollution from failing septic systems. With an estimated 130,000 failing or malfunctioning septic systems in the state, the status quo is a threat to public health and Pure Michigan. That’s why FLOW has been taking action with you and key stakeholders during the last few years to educate and empower the public and key stakeholders and pursue solutions.

This week presents another key opportunity to make a difference. Join FLOW starting today through Friday for SepticSmart Week, an annual educational campaign that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched a decade ago, with the State of Michigan, other states, communities, and organizations, including FLOW, as partners and participants.

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates.

State of Michigan’s 2022  Proclamation on SepticSmart Week 2022 (Click on image for larger version).

Each day this week, FLOW will release SepticSmart Week content, including original articles and videos providing facts, tips, and inspiration to help you be part of the solution to this shared challenge of not only septic system pollution, but also the broader challenge of surface and groundwater contamination in Michigan. (If you are unsure about what a septic system is or how it works, start here).

Slow, But Perceptible Progress on a Septic Code

FLOW’s action on septic system pollution began with our 2018 groundwater report, The Sixth Great Lake, which emphasized that in addition to releasing an estimated 9.4 billion gallons of poorly or untreated sewage into the soil and environment each year, failing septic systems release household chemicals that residents pour down their drains. Our report called for a uniform statewide sanitary code in Michigan.

In November 2019, FLOW and our partners and allies hosted a Michigan Septic Summit, attended by over 150 public health experts, scientists, local government representatives, nonprofit organizations, and interested citizens. We noted that the Summit “underscored a growing resolve in the state to do something meaningful about septic system pollution. Historically, when Michigan’s various interests have come together in good faith to solve an environmental problem, they have succeeded.”

The Michigan Septic Summit “underscored a growing resolve in the state to do something meaningful about septic system pollution. Historically, when Michigan’s various interests have come together in good faith to solve an environmental problem, they have succeeded.”

Since then we have continued to educate and empower the public and key stakeholders with the information and impetus to take action on septic system policy in order to protect public health, local communities, lakes, and ecosystems—especially groundwater, the source of drinking water for 45% of Michigan’s population.

The Michigan Groundwater Table Builds Consensus on Need for Protection

FLOW in January 2021 created and for a year convened the Michigan Groundwater Table, composed of 22 knowledgeable and influential stakeholders from local government, academia, and regulatory agencies.

The Groundwater Table’s work culminated with FLOW hosting a livestream event—Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible on World Water Day & Every Day—last March and then in June with our release of a report, Building Consensus: Securing Protection of Michigan’s Groundwater, and accompanying story map. The report contains consensus findings about the status of Michigan’s groundwater and also recommendations on how to improve its protection. The Groundwater Table agreed it should be a priority to develop a statewide initiative to enable inspection and repair of septic systems, including funding to empower local health agencies to conduct periodic inspections and facilitate compliance and to assist homeowners in replacing failing systems.

FLOW continues to educate and empower the public on the need for a statewide septic system policy in order to protect public health, local communities, lakes, and ecosystems—especially groundwater, the source of drinking water for 45% of Michigan’s population.

Progress on statewide septic policy in Michigan has been slow, but it is perceptible and continues. Acting on a recommendation from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and with the backing of FLOW and many other environmental groups, the Michigan Legislature this year approved $35 million in low-interest loans to help homeowners pay for replacing failing septic systems. It’s a down payment on a problem that will require much more investment to fix.

Contact State Representative Jeff Yaroch, a Republican from Macomb County, to express your support Michigan House Bill 6101, which would create a statewide septic code.

Additional progress is the tentative scheduling in Lansing of a September 28, 2022, meeting of the Michigan House Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Committee to consider a proposed statewide sanitary code. Although House leadership to date has not signaled an intent to pass the legislation–Michigan House Bill 6101–this year, its introduction and potential consideration is a recognition that the problem is not going away—and that state level action is vital. Contact the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Jeff Yaroch, a Republican from Macomb County, to express your support for a statewide septic code.

FLOW continues to work with the public and partners—community leaders, scientists, public health experts, academics, environmental advocates, realtors, and state and local lawmakers—to seek solutions to unregulated, polluting septic systems. Public education is vital to solving the longstanding problem. 

Stay tuned during SepticSmart Week to www.ForLoveOfWater.org and FLOW’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for daily updates. To get you started, here is today’s tip from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reminding all of us to “Think at the Sink!”

 

Michigan’s Forgotten Resource: The Water Flowing Underground

Editor’s note: An edited version of the following opinion column originally appeared June 9, 2022, in Bridge Michigan.


By Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

Water flows through a single cycle from air to surface water and groundwater, or from the land to lakes and streams, evaporating and beginning its journey all over again. But environmental law and policy often overlook an entire arc of the cycle, neglecting to include groundwater, and as a result, exposing the public to health risks and exposing ecosystems to degradation.

This fragmentation of thinking is reflected in a fragmentation of public policy and programs. And in a new report and accompanying groundwater story map just released by FLOW, scientists and representatives of key constituencies call for change to protect our precious water by making groundwater a state priority for protection and conservation.

The report, Building Consensus: Securing Protection of Michigan’s Groundwater, reflects the work of 22 knowledgeable and influential participants from local government, academia, and regulatory agencies who participated in the Michigan Groundwater Table convened by FLOW. Groundwater Table members met remotely over a year, coming to general agreement on findings regarding the state of Michigan’s groundwater, while discussing potential policy solutions.

In a series of reports dating back to 2018, FLOW has called attention to the gap between the importance of groundwater to Michigan’s health and welfare and the state’s historical absence of coherent  groundwater policies. Understanding that Michigan residents value stewardship of all water, including groundwater, FLOW in January 2021 launched and convened the Michigan Groundwater Table composed of diverse membership and perspectives.

In the new report, Groundwater Table members agreed that Michigan’s groundwater is a “critical and often overlooked resource,” vital to the state’s public health, agriculture and other businesses, coldwater fisheries, stream ecology, and wetlands, and can account for 25% of the total water inflow to the Great Lakes via groundwater discharge to tributaries. They also found that Michigan has underinvested in monitoring, mapping, and reporting groundwater quantity and quality.

Further, Michigan’s groundwater quality has deteriorated over the last century, leading to more than 15,000 contamination sites and thousands of contaminated private wells. Current policies often result in perpetuation of groundwater contamination that forecloses options for use of groundwater by future generations.

Although consensus was not achieved on all groundwater policy options, several recommendations commanded the support of most Groundwater Table members, including:

  • Private Wells–Providing funding for rural groundwater testing of private wells on residential properties.
  • Statewide Septic Code–Developing a statewide initiative to enable inspections and repair of septic systems, including funding to assist homeowners in replacing failing systems, and to empower local health agencies to conduct periodic inspections and facilitate compliance. An estimated 130,000 private septic systems are failing in Michigan, releasing poorly treated human waste and household chemicals to groundwater, lakes, and streams, yet Michigan is the only state lacking statewide standards for regular inspection, maintenance, and replacement of these systems.
  • Public Education–Advancing groundwater awareness among Michigan residents through innovative visualization and information tools to incorporate conservation and environmental protection into personal and institutional practices.
  • Data Tools–Improving water management decision-making and furthering the understanding and oversight of hydrologic systems through centralized access to comprehensive hydrologic data, analyses, and regional modeling in priority areas; supporting the Michigan Geological Survey by expanding geologic information and data-gathering capabilities; and better integrating existing databases and monitoring capabilities.

Consistent with the Michigan Groundwater Table’s recommendations, on March 30, Governor Whitmer signed into law an appropriations bill providing $10 million to implement the Michigan Hydrologic Framework and the much-needed integration of the state’s water-related databases.

The Building Consensus report concludes that Michigan’s groundwater is a critical part of Michigan’s present and future. Increasing water scarcity, a changing climate, and limited public funding for prevention and cleanup of contamination will continue to stress groundwater resources. Unless policymakers make a lasting commitment to groundwater protection and stewardship, Michigan will suffer from a degraded resource unable to serve the state’s needs.

Building Consensus to Protect Michigan’s Groundwater

The old saying, “out of sight, out of mind,” all too often characterizes Michigan’s approach to groundwater.

Understanding that Michigan residents and key stakeholders should value stewardship of all water, including groundwater, FLOW in January 2021 launched and convened the Michigan Groundwater Table composed of diverse membership and perspectives. After more than a year of work, FLOW is releasing a report today, and accompanying story map, on the Groundwater Table’s work.

The report, Building Consensus: Securing Protection of Michigan’s Groundwater, reflects the work of 22 knowledgeable and influential stakeholders from local government, academia, and regulatory agencies. It contains consensus findings about the status of Michigan’s groundwater and also recommendations on how to improve its protection. Although consensus was not achieved on all groundwater policy options, we are heartened by progress toward consensus on several recommendations related to:

  • Polluter pay
  • Private wells
  • Agricultural stewardship
  • Statewide septic code
  • Public education
  • Data tools.

Michigan’s groundwater is a critical part of Michigan’s present and future. Increasing population, a changing climate, and limited public funding for prevention and cleanup of contamination will continue to stress groundwater resources.

Groundwater Table members also agreed that Michigan’s groundwater is a “critical and often overlooked resource,” vital to the state’s public health, agriculture and other businesses, coldwater fisheries, stream ecology, and wetlands, and accounts for at least 25% of the total water inflow to the Great Lakes via groundwater inflow into tributaries. They also found that Michigan has underinvested in monitoring, mapping, and reporting groundwater quantity and quality.

The immersive story map, meanwhile, takes you on a visual journey from the groundwater basics to unique ecosystems, threats, and protection.

FLOW’s Commitment to Groundwater Protection

In a series of reports dating back to 2018, FLOW has called attention to the gap between the importance of groundwater to Michigan’s health and welfare and the state’s historically inconsistent groundwater policies. We have spotlighted groundwater because a significant percentage of the population knows and thinks little of it, even though groundwater provides drinking water, supports agriculture and industry, is critical to Michigan’s internationally renowned trout streams, and more.

The Building Consensus report concludes that Michigan’s groundwater is a critical part of Michigan’s present and future. Increasing population, a changing climate, and limited public funding for prevention and cleanup of contamination will continue to stress groundwater resources. Unless policymakers make a lasting commitment to groundwater protection and stewardship, Michigan will suffer from a degraded resource unable to serve the state’s needs.

The blueprint now exists for protecting Michigan’s groundwater—it is time to act on it.

Know the Source of Your Water—During Drinking Water Week, and Every Week

Turning on the tap and receiving drinking water is so commonplace that we often forget how vulnerable that water can be to contamination.

But Michiganders have reason to grasp the threat. The lead contamination crises in Flint and Benton Harbor have been news not only in the state, but across the country. Congress has approved $15 billion in federal funding to attack the problem of lead pipes nationally. The Michigan Legislature has appropriated almost $139 million to replace lead lines.

Lead pipes are just one of many threats to Michigan’s drinking water. The threat from other contaminants is greatest not to users of public drinking water systems, whose sources are predominantly surface water drawn from rivers and the Great Lakes and are regularly monitored, but to those who rely on the more than 1.25 million private wells in Michigan, which go largely untested. Many people don’t realize that 45% of Michigan’s population drinks water from underground sources. 

During Drinking Water Week, recognized May 1-7 by the State of Michigan and nationally, filling knowledge gaps is a critical priority. Knowing the source of your drinking water is crucial, and so is knowing about threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to prevent its contamination.

Unlike public water supplies, drinking water from private wells is not government-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.

Knowing the source of your drinking water is crucial, and so is knowing about threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to prevent its contamination.

Click above to read our groundwater report, “Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake.”

FLOW has documented some of the pollution that threatens groundwater in two reports, including Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake. Toxic substances, nitrate, chloride, bacteria, 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. Nitrate is among the contaminants that do not affect the taste and appearance of drinking water and thus could be consumed without people noticing in the absence of testing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that private well users have their water tested annually for contaminants. The CDC also recommends keeping household hazardous materials such as paint, fertilizer, pesticides, and motor oil far away from wells.

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.

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 that detail levels of key contaminants and any violations of drinking water standards.

In 2020, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), there were 922 Safe Drinking Water Act violations in 334 community supplies. Most of these violations related to treatment or reporting requirements, not violations of health-based drinking water standards.

Click on the image to learn about FLOW’s “Get Off the Bottle” campaign.

Many Michiganders drink bottled water—some as a short-term replacement for contaminated public or private water supplies, but far more do so for the perceived 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 BlueTriton’s (formerly Nestle’s)—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 individual, family, and public health. Learn more about FLOW’s efforts to protect groundwater here on our website.

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.

Public Trust Bill Package Boosts Groundwater Protection in Michigan

Editor’s note: This is a FLOW media release issued March 17, 2022. Members of the media can reach FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood at Liz@FLOWforWater.org or cell (570) 872-4956 or office (231) 944-1568.


FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood expressed strong support for legislation introduced in Lansing today that would shore up public trust protections for the Great Lakes and groundwater against water-bottling companies thirsting for profits and strengthen safeguards for waterways on state land.

“The Great Lakes must never be for sale,” Kirkwood said in a video-recording message for the press conference announcing the legislation. “And Michigan’s groundwater must never become privatized and siphoned away.”

Watch Liz Kirkwood’s video message below:

The three-bill package (House Bills 5953, 5954, and 5955) introduced by Michigan Reps. Yousef Rabhi, Laurie Pohutsky, Rachel Hood, and Padma Kuppa would close the legal loophole in the Great Lakes Compact that allows private interests and international regimes to take massive amounts of Great Lakes water as long as it is extracted in containers of 5.7 gallons or less. The legislation also would explicitly apply public trust protections to groundwater, which provides drinking water to 45% of Michiganders and helps recharge the Great Lakes, and would direct the Department of Natural Resources to be strong public trustees of the lands and waters it manages. Rep. Kuppa also plans to introduce a groundwater resolution on March 22, World Water Day.

“These prudent changes will ensure that Michigan has the ability to stop privatization of the Great Lakes and groundwater, and reject future water withdrawals that are not in the public’s interest,” said Kirkwood, an environmental attorney who directs FLOW (For Love of Water), the Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City. “We must protect every arc of the water cycle.”

Michigan’s groundwater supplies drinking water to 45% of Michiganders. Groundwater that discharges to lakes and streams also is crucial to sustain coldwater fisheries, stream ecology, and wetlands, and also accounts for approximately 20-40% of the volume of the Great Lakes.

“Without these protections explicitly in place we face the very real possibility that our most valuable natural resource, the water which defines our state, could be treated as a commodity for sale like oil,” Kirkwood said, “and virtually eliminate the state’s ability to protect this vital resource.”