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.
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.
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
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
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
- Enactment of “no stricter than federal” law (2018), which prevents state agencies from requiring necessary safeguards to protect our globally unique Great Lakes.
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.
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.
When Americans think of environmental laws, they tend to think of standards that control the pollution released by businesses, industries, sewage plants, and incinerators. This puts the stewardship duty and cost on those who generate the pollution, and provides an economic incentive to reduce waste.
To an extent, taxpayers are subsidizing the private sector instead of requiring it to eliminate or sharply reduce the pollution that ends up in drinking water.
There’s a major exception, however, that relates directly to public health: The federal Safe Drinking Water Act regulates the members of the public being polluted, rather than holding the polluters themselves accountable. This is a backwards policy. Here’s how it works: To make sure the public is not exposed to unsafe levels of contaminants, the act requires operators of public drinking water treatment plants to meet standards for limits on chemical and conventional pollutants that others have generated. To an extent, taxpayers are subsidizing the private sector instead of requiring it to eliminate or sharply reduce the pollution that ends up in drinking water.
Upstream Concerns in Ann Arbor
A recent Bridge Magazine article told this tale through the example of Ann Arbor. The Southeast Michigan city, like many others, is constantly scrambling to address both imminent and long-term contaminants released upstream of its drinking water intake in the Huron River.
Brian Steglitz, Ann Arbor Area Public Services Administrator, is quoted as expressing the view that state and federal environmental agencies should identify pollution sources that affect public drinking water supplies and work to eliminate them, rather than imposing new duties on the drinking water suppliers. Steglitz admits federal action is unlikely: “Waiting for the EPA is just not going to be the solution any longer, because they’re just too slow,” he said.
The problem affects water supplies across Michigan. PFAS chemicals have been detected in public drinking water supplies, as has nitrate, according to the state’s 2021 drinking water violations report.
Another approach would be to assess the costs of treating drinking water on those who created it.
Farm Runoff in Des Moines, Iowa
Another approach would be to assess the costs of treating drinking water on those who created it. Des Moines, Iowa, tried that. The city is forced to pay for treatment of its drinking water sources to remove nitrate pollution that largely comes from upstream agriculture. Nitrate is linked with colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and neural tube defects as well as methemoglobinemia in young children. Running a special nitrate cleaning facility can cost the public $10,000 a day.
In 2015, Des Moines Water Works sued upstream counties to reduce manure and fertilizer runoff into the city’s drinking water supply. But a court tossed the lawsuit, saying the question was more appropriate for the Iowa legislature.
With water priorities high on the current legislative agenda, now is the time for our public drinking water suppliers to put the costs back on the upstream polluters—where it belongs.
Prevention Is Best
“The whole thing would be a lot cheaper,” Bonnifer Ballard, executive director of the Michigan Section of the American Water Works Association, “if we just protected our source of water to begin with.”
Michigan is not Iowa. With water priorities high on the current legislative agenda, now is the time for our public drinking water suppliers to put the costs back on the upstream polluters—where it belongs. “The whole thing would be a lot cheaper,” Bonnifer Ballard, executive director of the Michigan Section of the American Water Works Association, “if we just protected our source of water to begin with.”