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Opinion | Michigan must protect its underground water

Water flows through a single cycle from air to surface water and groundwater, or from the land to lakes and streams, evaporating and beginning its journey all over again. But environmental law and policy often overlook an entire arc of the cycle, neglecting to include groundwater, and as a result, exposing the public to health risks and exposing ecosystems to degradation.

Dave Dempsey
Dave Dempsey is senior advisor at FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City.

This fragmentation of thinking is reflected in a fragmentation of public policy and programs. And in a new report and accompanying groundwater story map just released by FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, scientists and representatives of key constituencies call for change to protect our precious water by making groundwater a state priority for protection and conservation.

The report, Building Consensus: Securing Protection of Michigan’s Groundwater, reflects the work of 22 knowledgeable and influential participants from local government, academia, and regulatory agencies who participated in the Michigan Groundwater Table convened by FLOW.  Groundwater Table members met remotely over a year, coming to general agreement on findings regarding the state of Michigan’s groundwater, while discussing potential policy solutions.

In the new report, Groundwater Table members agreed that Michigan’s groundwater is a “critical and often overlooked resource,” vital to the state’s public health, agriculture and other businesses, cold water fisheries, stream ecology, and wetlands, and accounts for a large share of the total water inflow to the Great Lakes via groundwater inflow into tributaries. They also found that Michigan has underinvested in monitoring, mapping and reporting groundwater quantity and quality.

Further, Michigan’s groundwater quality has deteriorated over the last century, leading to more than 15,000 contamination sites and thousands of contaminated private wells. Current policies often result in perpetuation of groundwater contamination that forecloses options for use of groundwater by future generations.

Although consensus was not achieved on all groundwater policy options, several recommendations commanded the support of most Groundwater Table members, including:

Private Wells – Providing funding for rural groundwater testing of private wells on residential properties.

Statewide Septic Code – Developing a statewide initiative to enable inspections and repair of septic systems, including funding to assist homeowners in replacing failing systems, and to empower local health agencies to conduct periodic inspections and facilitate compliance. An estimated 130,000 private septic systems are failing in Michigan, releasing poorly treated human waste and household chemicals to groundwater, lakes, and streams, yet Michigan is the only state lacking statewide standards for regular inspection, maintenance, and replacement of these systems.

Public Education – Advancing groundwater awareness among Michigan residents through innovative visualization and information tools to incorporate conservation and environmental protection into personal and institutional practices.

Data Tools – Improving water management decision-making and furthering the understanding and oversight of hydrologic systems through centralized access to comprehensive hydrologic data, analyses, and regional modeling in priority areas; supporting the Michigan Geological Survey by expanding geologic information and data-gathering capabilities; and better integrating existing databases and monitoring capabilities.

Consistent with the Michigan Groundwater Table’s recommendations, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law an appropriations bill providing $10 million to implement the Michigan Hydrologic Framework and the much-needed integration of the state's water-related databases.

The Building Consensus report concludes that Michigan’s groundwater is a critical part of Michigan’s present and future. Looming regional water scarcity, a changing climate, and limited public funding for prevention and cleanup of contamination will continue to stress groundwater resources.

Unless policymakers make a lasting commitment to groundwater protection and stewardship, Michigan will suffer from a degraded resource unable to serve the state’s needs.

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