During national Drinking Water Week (May 3-9), how can we overlook one of our major drinking water sources?
A resident of Lansing for many years, I once asked several local friends where they thought the city’s drinking water came from. Two said the Grand River, one said “a reservoir someplace.”
All three were wrong, but they deserve no blame. They are among many Michiganders who don’t know that 45% of the state’s population depends on groundwater for drinking, bathing and household uses.
That proportion includes major urban complexes like Lansing and Kalamazoo, and 99% of rural residents of the state, who depend on their own individual wells.
As is the case with surface water sources of drinking water, those who depend on city or individual wells cannot always count on the water that comes out of their taps to be safe for consumption. In fact, individual wells may pose a greater risk, because there is no routine government monitoring of them for contaminants. Utilities that provide groundwater-sourced drinking water must test and analyze frequently.
FLOW has made a major commitment to protect groundwater as a drinking water source. Our report, The Sixth Great Lake, details the contamination issues menacing Michigan’s groundwater and offers solutions.
The first step toward solutions is awareness. To advance public knowledge of groundwater, we’ve created a story map that illustrates the wonder as well as the waste of this resource. Groundwater springs feed the headwaters of rivers. A steady flow of cold, clean groundwater is essential to the health and productivity of trout streams and supports rare wetlands. And of course, it supplies vital drinking water for millions of Michiganders.
We encourage you to start a journey toward groundwater awareness with the story map, and proceed from there to learn about the drinking water that groundwater supplies. In the end, only a well-informed citizenry can assure our groundwater is protected. Join us in calling for the public policy and private practice reforms that will assure safe, clean drinking water for over four million Michiganders.
“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”
These (slightly paraphrased) words of the English poet Coleridge from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” describe the saltwater of the seas. But today they could apply to some areas of Michigan, whose drinking water sources are not salt water, but freshwater.
During national Drinking Water Week (May 3-9) it’s worth observing the sad irony that in Michigan, which is surrounded by an endowment of 20% of the world’s freshwater in the Great Lakes, there are communities where people don’t have access to clean, affordable, safe drinking water.
The most appalling example is the City of Detroit, whose drinking water is unavailable to tens of thousands of residents whose service has been shut off. This unacceptable health hazard is the result of an inhumane policy that automatically shuts off water for delinquent payment of bills. Sister Great Lakes cities Chicago and Milwaukee have adopted policies forbidding similar shutoffs. Until Detroit residents have access to the city’s water, they will be unable to protect themselves from COVID-19 through handwashing or benefit from the same in-home water most of us take for granted.
But the denial of access to clean, safe drinking water is not limited to customers in the cities of Detroit or Flint, where lead poisoned the water supply six years ago. Across the state, private water wells are contaminated by such toxic chemicals as PFAS and nitrates. FLOW’S 2018 groundwater report showed that many rural water wells are contaminated with nitrates, the result of animal waste and nitrogen fertilizer application as well as failing septic systems. Between 2007 and 2017, of drinking water samples tested by state government’s environmental laboratory, 19% were contaminated with nitrates. Nitrates threaten the health of infants and there is growing evidence they may pose cancer risks. With no local or statewide program in place to routinely test private water wells, many well users may be exposed to drinking water contaminants and never know it until their health is compromised.
Public drinking water treatment and delivery systems are nearing or exceeding their design lives. In simple terms, they’re outliving their usefulness, and there is no plan to raise the funds to replace or upgrade them.
These holes in our drinking water systems are the result of federal and state government neglect. According to a 2017 report, the federal government’s contribution to water infrastructure capital spending has dropped precipitously over the past 30 years from 63 percent in 1977 to a meager 9 percent in 2014. Similarly, state governments have fallen short in providing adequate assistance. The eight states of the Great Lakes region face over $77 billion in estimated water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years. This crisis is compounded as many communities already face unaffordable water rates and struggle to maintain already weak infrastructure. In Michigan, the annual gap between available funding and water infrastructure is conservatively estimated at $800 million.
There are few political risks for public officials who champion a funding solution to our clean water woes. A recent national survey found that 84% of Americans support increasing the federal investment in our water infrastructure—and 73% support investing in water infrastructure to increase resilience to climate change, even when told this could cost more than $1.27 trillion.
One of the co-benefits of investments in water infrastructure is job creation. Upgrading and building drinking water treatment facilities would create thousands of jobs in Michigan alone. In the wake of the pandemic-caused economic collapse, creating water infrastructure projects is imperative.
During this national Drinking Water Week, we must focus on the need to rebuild our drinking water infrastructure. Michigan is a water-rich state, and its residents deserve access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. All of its residents.
Professor David Lusch retired in 2017, after a 38-year career in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences at Michigan State University (MSU). Beginning in 1992 with the publication of the Aquifer Vulnerability Map of Michigan, Dr. Lusch helped pioneer the use of geographic information systems for groundwater mapping and management in Michigan. The Groundwater Inventory and Mapping Project, which Lusch co-directed, won the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (MDEQ) Excellence Award in 2005. In 2008, MSU awarded Dr. Lusch the prestigious Distinguished Academic Staff Award and IMAGIN, Michigan’s professional geospatial organization, presented him with the Jim Living Geospatial Achievement Award.
As a member of the team that developed the Michigan Groundwater Management Tool (MGMT), Professor Lusch received the annual Director’s Recognition Award from MDEQ in 2009. Dr. Lusch was a co-PI of the recent Ottawa County Water Resources Study which used process-based flow modeling, coupled with field sampling, historical data mining, geostatistical analyses, and geospatial visualizations to better understand the underlying mechanisms controlling the patterns of shallow groundwater salinization in Ottawa County.
We asked him to offer his views on critical groundwater matters.
Do you think the Michigan populace understands groundwater and its importance? Why or why not?
In my opinion, most citizens of Michigan have only the most basic of an understanding of groundwater. Most people seem to intuitively know that there is groundwater beneath the ground surface and they generally know how important groundwater is as a drinking water source. However, they know little or nothing about aquifer systems, which aquifer they get their own drinking water from, the recharge areas in their landscapes, or the intimate connection between groundwater and surface water resources (especially the maintenance of stream flow and temperature).
What is the most important or surprising thing you have learned in your years working on groundwater?
The lack of adequate amounts of fresh (i.e., non-saline) groundwater in central Ottawa County from the Marshall Formation.
What are the biggest threats to Michigan groundwater quality, and what gaps are there in groundwater policy?
Human contamination of groundwater by an increasing number of hazardous chemicals. PFOS/PFOA are good examples of materials that have been used for a long time and that only recently have been found in groundwater because we never looked for it before. PFOS/PFOA were both on the EPA’s 2016 Contaminant Candidate List, but no preliminary regulatory determinations have yet been made due to a paucity of data about occurrence and toxicity. From a drinking water quality perspective, I think the biggest threat is that we don’t know what we don’t know.
Michigan appears to be a water-rich state; why would groundwater become scarce in some areas in the future?
As the Ottawa County Groundwater Study showed, some areas of Michigan are underlain by a very thin layer of fresh groundwater floating on top of saline groundwater. As groundwater use increases, the saline groundwater can upwell into the production zone and cause an increase in the concentration of dissolved solids (chlorides in the Ottawa County case). Drilling deeper will only exacerbate the problem because the TDS concentrations increase with depth (in some places reaching levels three times the TDS concentration of ocean water). In some areas of the state, the transmissivities of the local aquifer materials are small and the recharge rates are slow, so groundwater yield is notably low (less than 8-10 gpm in some places — a typical 3-bedroom home with modern domestic infrastructure requires 15-20 gpm). Lastly, in certain areas of Michigan, cold-transitional stream types need up to 96-98% of the available groundwater discharge in order to maintain their stream habitat. In such water management areas, this leaves only 2-4% of the available groundwater for all human uses.
If you were Michigan’s groundwater czar, what would you do to protect the resource?
As groundwater czar, my first priority would be to financially enhance the Environmental Health Divisions of all of the Local Health Departments in the state. Environmental Health sanitarians staffing these agencies are the first line of defense for protecting and maintaining groundwater quality (through the well and septic installation inspection programs). Currently, these programs are funded with pass-through money from the Michigan EGLE Department, Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division. The minimum program requirement for the LHDs is to field inspect at least 10% of all the wells drilled in any one year. A few of the more affluent counties LHDs (e.g., Oakland Health Department) in the state inspect 100% of all the well installations in their county. Such a level of funding/staffing for all the LHDs in the state would go a long way toward protecting our groundwater resource.
My second priority would be to increase the funding for the Environmental Health Divisions of all of the Local Health Departments in the state in order to have vibrant and vigilant Pollution Incident Planning Programs. Coupled with this, I would also increase funding for local fire chiefs/marshals so they could effectively bolster the PIP Program with onsite inspections under the Firefighter Right To Know statute. Both of these activities should be focused on existing wellhead protection areas for both Community and Non-community Public Water Supplies, with special emphasis placed on non-transient, non-community supplies (schools, nursing homes, apartment complexes, etc.).