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Posts from the ‘water protection’ Category

Flint water crisis: Policy changes needed to restore public trust

In what has become a national news story and a full-fledged public health emergency, state officials now acknowledge that unsafe drinking water has exposed children, pregnant women and other Flint residents to dangerous levels of lead.

If you haven’t been following the story, you can find useful information here, here and here.

Gov. Rick Snyder today put forth a plan to switch the city’s drinking water source from the Flint River back to Detroit. The switch is expected to take about two weeks. Coupled with measures announced last week—including funding for water filters and additional lead testing—today’s announcement is an important step forward.

Still, there is a lot more state leaders could do to resolve the Flint crisis and prevent similar scenarios in other Michigan communities. Below we identify some additional measures the state should take as soon as possible.

If you’ve been following this situation closely, feel free to skip ahead to our take on the situation. If you’re new to this issue, here’s some background information to bring you up to speed.

Why lead in drinking water is such a big deal

Lead exposure causes irreversible brain damage, which results in learning disabilities and violent behavior in children and adults. The effects are both heartbreaking and costly—childhood lead poisoning costs Michigan $330 million a year in decreased lifetime earnings and increased costs for health care, crime and special education.

The more we learn about lead, the more worrisome it becomes. For instance, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2013 updated its risk threshold for lead poisoning and said there is no safe level of lead exposure. And new research from Wayne State University shows that a mother’s exposure to lead can damage not only her children’s fetal cells, but also her grandchildren’s.

As the Detroit Free Press noted in a recent editorial, Flint’s formula-fed infants are at extremely high risk because water makes up such a big portion of their diet. So are the unborn children of pregnant women who have been drinking water they were assured is safe. Switching back to a safer drinking water source will greatly reduce the risk, but as the Free Press editors wrote, “For children who have already been exposed, there are no remedies.” Read more

Snyder takes important step on straits pipelines, but more work ahead

Gov. Rick Snyder today took an important step toward protecting Michigan’s communities and waterways from oil spills by issuing an executive order that creates a Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board.

The 15-member panel will “ensure safety, upkeep and transparency of issues related to the state’s network of pipelines. It will also be charged with advising state agencies on matters related to pipeline routing, construction, operation, and maintenance,” the governor’s office said in a news release.

While the group will look at pipelines across the state, a particular focus will be the Line 5 pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac. Owned by Enbridge and more than six decades old, the twin pipelines every day push 23 million gallons of oil through the heart of the Great Lakes.

The panel includes state officials, industry representatives, environmental advocates and others. MEC is pleased that the board includes Jennifer McKay from member group Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council; Mike Shriberg of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, a strong partner group; and Chris Shepler of Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry, a local business owner who has been outspoken on the need to prevent an oil spill in the straits.

“This new advisory group will provide an important forum for state leaders, water-protection advocates and others to work directly with Enbridge toward a solution that keeps oil out of our Great Lakes and inland waters,” said Chris Kolb, MEC president. “I see an opportunity here for the conversation about Line 5 to become more open and transparent, and for Enbridge to provide clear information about the condition of its pipelines.

“This is a good first step, but there’s still a lot of work to do. I encourage the Snyder administration to take additional measures right away to protect our environment and local economies from the disastrous impacts of an oil spill, and to set aggressive timelines for meaningful action,” Kolb added. Read more

MEC submits comments on state’s 30-year water strategy

Late last week, MEC and several of our partners and members submitted formal comments on the draft document, “Sustaining Michigan’s Water Heritage: A Strategy for the Next Generation,” created by the Office of the Great Lakes (OGL) at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Overall, our comments were supportive and encouraging. Despite a few areas where we suggest speedier timelines or tighter language in a particular recommendation, we’re mostly just excited, and encouraged that the state has put forward such a comprehensive 30-year water strategy. You can read our full comments here.

As we stated in our comments:

In an era of unprecedented freshwater uncertainty (such as Western-state droughts and climate change), the development of a comprehensive and far-reaching strategy and vision articulating the value and role of Michigan’s precious water resources is a great thing. We applaud the Governor for asking for the strategy, and thank Jon Allan and the team at OGL for pulling it together…It offers a solid accounting of the many specific water-related challenges, opportunities and options facing the state today, and in decades ahead. From aquatic invasive species and harmful algae blooms to groundwater withdrawals and stormwater runoff, the document offers a sobering and insightful picture of the road ahead.

If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of our comments, there’s plenty of material to dig into, including calls for stronger language opposing commercial fish farms in the Great Lakes, more details about water affordability, greater emphasis on watershed-level governance opportunities and more urgency around septic inspections, water withdrawals, and replacing soon-to-expire monitoring and clean-up programs.

But beyond the specific policy ideas lies a bigger challenge for OGL—and for all of us. That’s to make sure this plan doesn’t end up on a shelf or get tied up (and bogged down) by politics. It’s got the depth and credentials to become a useful action plan during the current administration and in future ones, but only if we’re ready to take some ownership.

The water strategy might not be perfect, but it’s a good tool and MEC is committed to helping ensure that implementation and follow-up are baked in from the start.


Photo courtesy Delta Whiskey via Flickr.

Ten surprising facts in Michigan’s new water strategy

Crafting a 30-year strategy to position Michigan’s abundant (and awesome) water assets in a national and global context is no easy feat. MEC is grateful to Governor Snyder for asking for such a plan, and to Jon Allan and his team at the Office of Great Lakes (OGL) for pulling a laudable draft of one together.

More discussion of the water strategy is below, but first, here are the top ten surprises I found in digging through the document. Take a look for yourself, and see what surprises you!

  1. Michigan has more than 1.3 million on-site wastewater systems (septics), but is the only state without a specific law regulating them. No central system exists to track the locations or conditions of these systems as Michigan lacks a statewide sanitary code that would require inspections. Only 11 of Michigan’s 83 counties conduct septic inspections at time the time of real estate transaction.
  2. More than half of all new single-family houses built today in Michigan are not serviced by a public wastewater utility but instead rely on individual septic systems.  The report estimates that at least 130,000 systems statewide are likely failing and discharging as much as 31 million gallons of sewage per day.
  3. Michigan has more than 1 million private domestic wells, more than any other state in the U.S. While public water supplies are subject to oversight and frequent inspections to ensure their quality and safety, individual residential water well owners are responsible for the maintenance of their own wells, and the siting and construction of these wells is handled at the local level rather than at the state level.
  4. The state has an estimated 2 million improperly abandoned wells, each of which poses a risk to groundwater resources by providing a potential conduit between the surface and underground aquifers, or between aquifers.
  5. Michigan has more than 8,500 leaking underground storage tanks and more than 9,700 other sites of environmental contamination. Twelve of Michigan’s original 14 designated Areas of Concern remain on the list of areas with legacy contamination. Cleanup funds and monitoring funds from previous statewide bonds are within a few years of disappearing, and no replacement source has been identified. Read more

Guest post: Coldwater River fiasco highlights need for drain code reform

Editor’s note: This piece was contributed by Dr. Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited and a member of MEC’s board of directors. It originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Michigan Trout Magazine. It has been edited here for length.

In much of southern Michigan trout streams are a rare breed. There are a lot of reasons for this rarity, some natural, but many are the result of us turning this part of the state into a “working landscape.” It’s filled with urban areas and farmland that completely altered the natural hydrology of our southern Michigan streams, rendering them impaired or broken in terms of cold, clean water. So the rare handful of streams that have persisted cold enough and high quality enough to still support trout are coveted and revered around here, where most of the residents of the state live. These southern Michigan trout streams are analogous to a trillium flower growing up through a crack in a busy downtown sidewalk. The Coldwater River, located about 40 minutes west of Lansing, was one of these rare trilliums of a trout stream. That is until the local drain commission and its agents dug a 12-mile trench in the ground around that rare little blossom.

The river

The Coldwater River, also referred to as the Little Thornapple River, originates at Jordan Lake in the town of Lake Odessa, flows southward almost to Hastings, turns northwest and then flows downstream till it joins the Thornapple River, which then joins the Grand River. Despite originating from a lake and flowing through farm lands, this river kept temperatures cold enough to support brown trout.

Trout Unlimited (TU) members from Lansing to Grand Rapids frequented the river as their local trout angling waters, and over the last decade or so had invested significant time, energy and money into enhancement efforts in this watershed, including the removal of the Freeport Dam last year. Well-known Michigan trout guru Jim Bedford, who has fished more of the state’s trout rivers than just about anyone, identified the Coldwater River as having produced more trophy brown trout for him than any other river in the state. Normally I’d never divulge such privileged information, but unfortunately it won’t offer that kind of quality fishing any time soon. Read more

Guest post: Conservation champion Willard Wolfe enters Environmental Hall of Fame

Editor’s note: This post was contributed by noted writer, environmental historian, policy advisor and former MEC staff member Dave Dempsey.

When dentist and fly fisherman Willard Wolfe saw the destruction of the trout streams he loved and the unbridled alteration of stream and lake habitat across Michigan, he didn’t get mad—he got  to work.

Thanks to his vision and leadership, a strong draft bill was handed to activists who got it passed. Michigan had an historic lakes and streams protection law less than two years later. The 1972 Inland Lakes and Streams Act has saved countless Michigan water resources from damming, channelizing and filling.

For initiating, choosing, and chairing the statewide ad hoc committee that authored that law, and for a life of conservation activism, Wolfe was inducted into the Michigan Environmental Hall of Fame in May. A project of the Muskegon Environmental Research and Education Society (MERES), the Hall of Fame welcomed several other past and present advocates into its ranks in the same ceremony, held in the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids.

For those who knew Will, who died in 2011, the recognition was fitting.  A gentleman with a quiet but firm persistence, he sought no reward for his conservation work—yet that work had lasting, statewide significance.

“His long-standing commitment to the joys of trout fishing on Michigan’s beautiful natural rivers made him a logical leader in the effort to provide effective controls,” MERES said in announcing Will’s induction. “This resulted in the Inland Lakes and Streams Act to protect the natural characteristics of our lakes and streams. Michigan led the nation in those years to provide adequate protections for these natural values.”

As is true of many conservationists, Will’s activism had roots in childhood. Growing up on Grosse Ile in the Detroit River, he was surrounded by nature.  “As an Eagle Scout, he learned the names of the wildlife and many plants,” said his wife Joan. “As an enthusiastic small-boat builder and sailor, as well as just living on the river, he also learned to love wildlife. While his best friends hunted ducks and geese, he was content to just learn about them.” Read more

Green infrastructure is gaining ground in Michigan

Stormwater runoff is a major source of pollution in our waterways. The sediment, nutrients and chemicals that are introduced to our lakes and streams from stormwater are hurting fish populations and affecting human health and safety.

The cause of this runoff is the mass amount of impervious surface in our cities, approximately 15 percent of Southeast Michigan is covered with impervious surface, mostly pavement. We have attempted to remove water from our properties and streets and funnel it to treatment plants, without realizing that nature had been diverting and treating stormwater for millennia. The green infrastructure movement is all about getting our modern day infrastructure and technology to do what nature always did before we altered it.

What makes infrastructure green is not some advanced technology. It is instead simply a new way of thinking about an old problem. The old design of storm drains and pipes that pushed stormwater to the nearest body of water simply made those bodies of water unfit for human use. Prior to human intervention in the process, most rain was absorbed into the ground and filtered through the earth to recharge groundwater, or filtered through a wetland before draining, clean, into a main body of water. Green infrastructure is designed to put water through that process again. This means fewer pipes and impervious surfaces, and more rain gardens and permeable pavement.

Many companies and municipalities are already making a commitment to green infrastructure. While at the Department of Environmental Quality’s Northern Michigan Green Infrastructure Conference this month, I had the opportunity to tour two such projects and hear about many more. Read more

Q&A: With climate declaration, Brewery Vivant continues striving to “Beer the Change”

As if making delicious beer wasn’t enough to win us over, America’s craft brewers have also been strong leaders in showing that businesses can thrive while giving back to their communities and finding innovative ways to protect the environment.

Case in point: Two dozen craft brewers announced this week they had signed a Brewer’s Climate Declaration, which says the companies will take action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and will engage with policymakers to support political action to halt climate change. Those breweries already are taking steps to reduce energy use, cut transportation emissions and conserve water, among other sustainability measures.

“It’s good for business, it’s not just good for the environment,” Craft Brew Alliance sustainability manager Julia Person told the Huffington Post. “We’re lowering our operating costs. It’s doing the right thing and having a benefit.”

So far, two Michigan companies—Rockford Brewing Company and Brewery Vivant—have signed the declaration.

In reading up about the climate declaration, we were impressed to learn that Brewery Vivant in 2012 became the first brewery in the country to attain LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. We checked in with co-owner and sustainability manager Kris Spaulding to learn more about how the Grand Rapids brewery is striving to support its community and shrink its environmental impact.

Kris Spaulding

Brewery Vivant's Kris Spaulding.

MEC: Why did Brewery Vivant decide to sign on to the climate declaration? More generally, why have you made sustainability such a priority?

Kris Spaulding: Sustainability is one of the values we founded our business on. We believe that a great business exists because of the support of the local community. Therefore a business should be an active member of the community and should strive to find meaningful ways to engage with it and give back to it. These are values we hold personally, but that we believe all businesses should be thinking along the lines of the triple bottom line.

As for the declaration itself, climate change is going to continue to impact our industry and our world so I think it is best to work towards solutions now rather than waiting for more catastrophic events to finally lead to change happening. I like that the declaration challenges businesses to innovate and work towards solutions rather wait and see what someone else will do. Read more

Labor Day Bridge Walk is an opportunity for action on Straits oil pipeline

Gov. Rick Snyder will lead about 40,000 people on a five-mile walk across the Mackinac Bridge on Monday, continuing a 57-year old Labor Day tradition.

Also on Monday—as happens every day—23 million gallons of crude oil will cross the Straits of Mackinac just west of the bridge, through a pair of pipelines a couple hundred feet below the surface.

The pipelines are older than the Bridge Walk tradition. They were installed in 1953, the first year of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, when Patti Page’s “The Doggie in the Window” topped Billboard charts and the U.S. Supreme Court was deliberating whether public school segregation was constitutional.

The kids were crazy for this sort of thing when the Straits oil pipelines were installed.

They are owned by Enbridge, the Canadian company responsible for the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history – the 2010 spill of about a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River, which is still being cleaned up. The Straits pipelines are older than the one that ruptured in the Kalamazoo spill, but Enbridge has made public very little information on their condition. In July, the state notified Enbridge it needed additional support structures to comply with state regulations.

Enbridge was responsible for more than 1,000 oil spills in the U.S and Canada between 1999 and 2013.

MEC and other groups from the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign will be at the Bridge Walk to gather signatures from participants on a petition urging Gov. Snyder to protect the Great Lakes from a disastrous oil spill. (Signing the petition is quick and easy; click here.) We’re asking the governor to immediately open a transparent, public process under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act to evaluate the threat posed by the pipelines and determine what actions should be taken to prevent a catastrophe. Read more

Tell the DEQ: proposed fracking rules fall short

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hits the road this week to gather public input on proposed rules on fracking for oil and gas.

Tonight the department will hold a meeting at Treetops Resort, 3962 Wilkinson Road in Gaylord. Wednesday evening there will be a second meeting at the Lansing Center, 333 East Michigan Avenue, down the road from the Capitol. Both meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.

If you’ve got the time, this is a great chance to have your say on a very important issue. And if you can’t make it to a meeting, you can submit written comments to until July 31.

You can review the proposed rules here.

Our take: The rules don’t go nearly far enough to protect Michigan’s streams, wetlands and groundwater. Here are the main shortcomings.

They don’t require chemical disclosure before drilling. We believe local residents have a right to know what chemicals are in the fracking fluid pumped underground to release oil and gas trapped in shale formations. Read more