On March 30, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a $4.7 billion bill that includes almost $2 billion for water infrastructure. Overwhelming majorities of the State House and Senate approved the bill on March 24.
Relying heavily on federal COVID-19 relief and infrastructure dollars, the legislation funds wastewater and drinking water projects, efforts to curb PFAS contamination, assistance to replace failing septic systems, replacement of lead pipes in municipal drinking water systems, and a healthy hydration program to eliminate children’s lead exposure in school drinking water supplies.
The new law also contains funding for state parks maintenance, dam safety, and non-environmental projects. Deeply concerning is the $50 million taxpayer-funded subsidy the legislation provides to a private company to mine potash in Osceola County, which has drawn well-informed criticism from Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC), as well as from FLOW. MCWC asked Governor Whitmer to veto the item. The proposed operation would withdraw 1,200 gallons of groundwater per minute, more than 630 million gallons per year, contaminate it with brine, hydrogen sulfide, and hydrocarbons, then inject it underground in sensitive wetland areas that flow into the Muskegon River. Whitmer did not veto the subsidy.
“This legislation is a major step forward in protecting Michigan’s drinking water and our lakes and streams, but it is not perfect,” said FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood. “Big as this bill is, it represents a much needed down payment. The estimated gap between our water infrastructure needs and what we’ve been spending is almost $1 billion – per year.
“We also need to develop policies and funding mechanisms that make public water affordable for all, while preventing shutoffs,” she said.
Lisa Wozniak, the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, called the water infrastructure legislation “a huge win for our water.”
Conan Smith, president and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, said the legislation “will be instrumental in ensuring Michiganders everywhere have access to clean, safe drinking water and will protect human health, not to mention create jobs and strengthen our economy.”
Key items in the bill include:
- $750 million for drinking water infrastructure improvement projects
- $515 million for wastewater and stormwater upgrades
- $450 million for local and state parks and trails
- $200 million for the Four Lakes Task Force to fix the dams that burst two years ago in Midland County
- $138.8 million to replace lead service lines, including $45 million in Benton Harbor and $75 million in Detroit
- $88.2 million to address emerging contaminants, like toxic PFAS contaminants in storm and wastewater
- $50 million for a Healthy Hydration program providing drinking water filters in schools and childcare facilities
- $35 million to address failing septic systems
- $25 million for electric vehicle (EV) industry support and pilot programs
Sponsored by Republican Senator Jon Bumstead, Senate Bill 565 originally included $3.3 billion of funding for water, which was more than Governor Whitmer, a Democrat, was willing to support at the time. After negotiations, the bill grew to $4.7 billion, adding funds for non-environmental needs, including emergency rental assistance and road and bridge projects.
Two of FLOW’s priorities are in the bill:
- A $35 million program of low-interest and no-interest loans to help property owners replace failing septic systems. With an estimated 130,000 failing systems leaking human waste and household hazardous wastes into Michigan’s groundwater and surface water, the need is great.
- $10 million to implement recommendations of the state Water Use Advisory Council. Endorsed by the multi-stakeholder Michigan Groundwater Table convened by FLOW, the recommendations for monitoring, data collection, analysis, and reporting should lead to better stewardship of groundwater
In addition to the controversial potash mining subsidy, Smith said the bill contained a “fairly egregious insertion” of $25 million for building new low-carbon energy facilities. “This very likely means funding for ethanol and other biogas projects, rather than wind and solar. These projects have far-reaching consequences, including slowing our transition away from natural gas and exacerbating problems with monoculture agriculture that we are already experiencing in Michigan,” Smith said.
Many implementation details remain to be resolved. The legislation gives significant leeway to state agencies in funding projects. For example, the legislation’s septic system language calls for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to “establish and support a loan program that provides low- or no-interest loans to municipalities, residents, and other entities deemed necessary by [EGLE] to protect public health and the environment through addressing failing septic systems.”
FLOW and other environmental organizations will make recommendations regarding, and monitor the implementation of, the environmental provisions of the infrastructure legislation to assure maximum benefits to Michigan residents in greatest need and the environment.