If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map is often worth tens of thousands.
That’s especially true of a map that tells the story of a natural resource that is out of sight and often overlooked: groundwater. Building on over five years of work, FLOW has recently updated and improved our groundwater story map. Now we want to make it readily accessible to educators and students.
Michigan’s groundwater is a critical part of the water cycle and fuels our Great Lakes. This “invisible” resource is in danger of contamination and depletion everywhere, and other regions in the U.S. are currently dealing with the fallout of its degradation. Michigan needs healthy and plentiful groundwater to support its freshwater industries and tourism, environmental biodiversity and ecosystems, and the health of almost 4.5 million Michigan residents (44% of the population) who use groundwater in their homes.
FLOW created this groundwater story map to help the public access and understand current and accurate information about this increasingly threatened resource. It is a comprehensive educational tool designed for everyone, from the experienced advocate to the merely curious, to help explain the wonders and threats to groundwater. It covers topics like groundwater basics, unique ecosystems, groundwater use, extraction and industry, and groundwater protection.
The story map uses the most recent available data for groundwater wells, extractions, contamination sites, and more to create interactive mapping applications – all streamlined for faster loading. There are new maps showing industrial and irrigation wells, Michigan’s aquifers, and how various sectors utilized groundwater in 2021. There are also new interactive graphics describing Michigan’s groundwater usage.
The story map is bursting with information about the environmental significance of groundwater. It takes you on a visual journey from the groundwater basics to unique ecosystems, threats, and protection.
FLOW (For Love of Water) hailed the introduction of “polluter pay” bills in the Michigan Legislature as a long overdue step toward protecting Michigan’s groundwater resources and public health from the 24,000+ contaminated sites in the state. The new legislation shifts the cost burden of cleanups from Michigan taxpayers back to the businesses and corporations responsible for the pollution.
“These bills will not only spur cleanup of historic contamination sites, but also serve as a powerful deterrent to future contamination,” said Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director. “If potential polluters know they will have to contain their spills and clean them up rather than leave contamination in the ground, they’ll take measures to reduce the risk of significant liability.”
Kirkwood commended the sponsors, Senator Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Representative Jason Morgan (D-Ann Arbor), for their bold leadership in drafting and introducing the legislation (SB 605-611).
Current law enables owners of contaminated sites to avoid cleaning up their pollution and instead to secure bans on the use of groundwater and use impermeable surfaces to limit human exposure. As a result, EGLE’s Environmental Mapper had recorded 4,244 land-use restrictions at 3,530 sites (some sites have more than one restriction) as of August 22, 2023. The total surface area covered by the restrictions is 66,332 acres – cumulatively more than twice the size of the City of Grand Rapids. Soils and/or groundwater at most of these sites remain polluted.
“When we have to ban the use of groundwater — which is the source of drinking water for 45% of Michigan residents — we foster a spreading stain across the state,” Kirkwood said. “By flipping the assumption from water and land restrictions to cleanup, these bills will stop that trend and protect groundwater for Michiganders.”
FLOW has advocated a return to the polluter “pay principle” since 2018 in a series of groundwater protection reports that also set out a comprehensive policy agenda. This is consistent with strong recent public polling from Progress Michigan, which shows an overwhelming 95 percent of those polled support requiring corporations to pay to clean up their own pollution. Today, FLOW is releasing a new report: Making Polluters Pay: How to Fix State Law and Policy to Protect Groundwater and Michigan Taxpayers (2023) to provide the historical context and enduring legacy of Michigan’s repeal of polluter pay, and to articulate the urgent need for legal reforms to hold polluters accountable.
There’s a loose patchwork of septic standards in Michigan
Because of the lack of state standards to assure replacement of failing septic systems, some counties, townships, cities, and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements, but they are relatively few out of Michigan’s approximately 2,000 local units of government.
Only 11 of 83 Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time property is sold. Within the first 6 years of implementing their ordinances, two Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks, and 300 homes without any septic system or other wastewater treatment.
How septic systems work (and what happens when they don’t)
Septic systems are small-scale wastewater treatment options, used when a home or complex cannot easily be connected to a municipal sewer system.
Raw sewage and wastewater (e.g., bath water and dishwater) are first pumped from the home into the septic tank. This is an underground, sealed, concrete tank where the household waste is treated. Here, solid waste sinks to the bottom of the tank and materials such as oil form a layer of scum on top. Bacteria then break down the solid waste, while the wastewater migrates out of the septic tank and into the drain field.
Perforated pipes distribute the liquid wastewater throughout the drain field. Once out of the pipes, the wastewater effluent seeps through a gravel layer, then through the soil. The gravel and soil filter the wastewater before it flows into the groundwater or nearby surface water (streams, ponds, lakes, etc.).
Leaking or malfunctioning septic systems allow organic wastewater compounds like nitrate and E. coli to percolate through the soil and enter the groundwater. Leakage and effluent runoff are also major contributors to E. coli levels in surface water.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has identified approximately 200 rivers, lakes, and beaches with E. coli levels over the EPA limit.
Between 2013 and 2014, an estimated 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage from failing septic systems were pumped into surface water in Michigan. Failing septic systems have been correlated with disease. A 2003 study found that septic system densities were associated with endemic diarrheal illness in central Wisconsin.
Septic systems and emerging contaminants
Human wastes are not the only pollutants that failing septic tanks are releasing to groundwater and surface water. So-called emerging contaminants are found in household wastes, whether they discharge to publicly owned sewage systems or septic tanks.
Twenty different studies on septic systems have identified 45 contaminants in septic effluent, including pharmaceuticals, personal care product ingredients, chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, hormones (both natural and synthetic), and other common substances such as caffeine.
Septic systems are somewhat effective at removing chemicals such as acetaminophen, caffeine, and alkylphenols, a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. But some chemicals remain largely untreated, including the carcinogenic flame retardant TCEP, an anti-epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole.
One cause of the septic system pollution problem is homeowners’ lack of awareness. A 2018 study of mid-Michigan residents likely to have septic systems, conducted by Public Sector Consultants, found:
Approximately 30 percent of residents did not know they have a septic system.
The average age of septic systems was 28 years old.
Forty-three percent of respondents indicated they had not had their system pumped within the last 5 years, and 25 percent indicated that they did not pump or maintain their system on a regular basis.
Only 15 percent of residents were aware of the normal lifespan of a septic system.
Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems.
Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain. These substances can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.
Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water-efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks and install faucet aerators and water-efficient products. Spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day—too much water at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.
Pump your Tank: Routinely pumping your tank can prevent your septic system from premature failure, which can lead to groundwater contamination.
Protect It and Inspect It: Homeowners should generally have their system inspected every three years by a qualified professional or according to their state or local health department’s recommendations. Tanks should be pumped when necessary, typically every three to five years.
Test Your Drinking Water Well: If septic systems aren’t properly maintained, leaks can contaminate well water. Testing your drinking water well is the best way to ensure your well water is free from contaminants.
Michigan households relying on private wells may be drinking polluted groundwater without realizing it. A new state program aims to change that.
Common water quality concerns include coliform bacteria, nitrate, nitrite, fluoride, chloride, sulfate, sodium, hardness, and metals like aluminum, antimony, arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, iron, manganese, mercury, selenium, uranium, and zinc.
Now, thanks to a new $5 million allocation in funding from the state legislature, residents can get their water tested for FREE through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and their local health departments. (Your local health department can provide information about drinking water concerns in your area, and what testing is best for your water source.)
Michigan has the most private drinking water wells drilled annually of any state. About 45% of the state’s population depends on groundwater for its drinking water. FLOW has been a strong advocate of removing cost barriers to well testing, as part of our groundwater policy agenda:
“Thousands of Michigan citizens relying on private wells may be drinking polluted groundwater without realizing it. The state should remove cost barriers to testing of such wells initiated by their owners. The Michigan Legislature should appropriate funding to enable owners of residential drinking waterwells to obtain testing of wellwater samples.” The Sixth Great Lake (p. 17), September 2018
“WATER TESTING: Michigan homeowners with private wells are not served by routine water testing and may unknowingly consume contaminated water. The state should create a fund to assist such homeowners, largely in rural areas, in regular water well testing.” Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake (p. 21), May 2021
When you get a speeding ticket, you don’t get 43 years to pay it. And when you contaminate a river with toxic materials — a much bigger hazard than going 45 in a 40 – you shouldn’t get 43 years to stop doing it and pay a fine. But there’s a double standard in Michigan when it comes to toxic discharge from the BASF facility in Wyandotte. Just upstream from a public drinking water intake for the city of Wyandotte, the company has been discharging 3,000 gallons per hour of polluted groundwater into the Detroit River for decades.
The trouble is, the state has never enforced the command.
Meanwhile, a toxic stew that now includes everything from PFAS to mercury is coughed up by the old industrial site 24/7/365. Some of these chemicals are not even monitored, even though they are upstream from the drinking water intake.
Last week, at a public meeting to explain the status of the problem, well-meaning public servants from the U.S. EPA and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) told citizens that it will be another three years before BASF begins construction of what is being called the permanent remedy. This is appalling.
Every day that BASF is allowed to contaminate the river is another violation of federal and state clean water laws. According tostate statute, the company is theoretically liable for penalties of $25,000 per day.
The mistakes of previous generations of state officials can’t be blamed on those in decision-making positions in 2023. But unless they – and their bosses at the top of EPA and EGLE today – take action, the degradation of the Detroit River will be the result of their failure to enforce the law. And the public will suffer.
Here’s what you can do:
Learn more about the history and current state of the BASF Wyandotte pollution violations via this website.
Send an email to the Michigan Attorney General (Dana Nessel (firstname.lastname@example.org) asking her to immediately enforce provisions of the state Court Order with BASF that her predecessor Frank Kelley fought for and won in U.S. District Court in 1985.
Alert the new EGLE Director Phil Roos (email@example.com) of the urgent need for his agency to stop BASF from discharging 3,000 gallons per hour of toxic contaminated groundwater to the Great Lakes in Wyandotte, and ask the new director to take action to protect public health and the health of the Detroit River.
FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood sat down with the Northern Express to talk about Michigan’s unheralded “Sixth Great Lake”: Groundwater. In the July 31, 2023 issue, learn about Michigan’s hydrological connections, and how FLOW is working to protect all the waters of the Great Lakes Basin through our work on education, septic codes, and polluter pay laws.
This fall, the Michigan legislature will have an opportunity to correct a grievous and egregious deficiency in Michigan’s water policy. How is it that in the third decade of the 21st Century, Michigan, the Great Lakes State, is the only state of 50 without a statewide code setting minimum standards for the design, construction, and inspection of septic systems?
When surveyed, Michigan citizens clearly value and take pride in our water wealth and broadly share concerns over protecting this extraordinary natural resource. Yet it appears that the beauty and superabundance of the Great Lakes and tributary rivers and streams conceal the very real harms that are well known to scientists, environmental professionals, and public health officials.
Studies have revealed that all the river systems within the lower peninsula are contaminated with human microbial fecal matter attributable to failing and substandard septic systems. In most Michigan counties there is no requirement to inspect septic systems or even pump out septic tanks. Indeed, the few county programs that attempt to inspect household septic systems when homes are sold have found that some homes are neither connected to municipal waste systems nor have any septic system whatsoever.
Fortunately, Senator Sam Singh and Representative Phil Skaggs (D – 80th) have introduced twin bills – Senate Bills 299 and 300; House Bills 4479 and 4480 – that would rectify this situation, setting minimum state performance standards for onsite wastewater treatment systems and requiring periodic inspections of existing systems.
Most Michigan citizens are surprised and disheartened to learn that Michigan is the only state in the nation with 19th Century onsite waste policies.
That is why FLOW has taken a leadership role in advancing these needed reforms and is asking its supporters to reach out to their elected representatives and insist that corrective legislation pass this fall.
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’sFacebook,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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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:
Elimination of the “polluter pay” law(1995), which effectively shifts the cost of cleaning up contaminated sites (including state waters) from the entities that caused the pollution to the taxpayers;
Reliance on “institutional controls” (also 1995), which allows polluters to leave new releases of contamination in state waters subject to use restrictions, rather than clean them up; and
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.
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
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.