Dave Dempsey is senior advisor for FLOW (For Love of Water), a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the common waters of the Great Lakes Basin. It is based in Traverse City.
Many Michiganders may not realize the importance of groundwater, which supplies drinking water for 45 percent of the population. Groundwater is also critical to industrial and agricultural uses, and supplies as much as 40 percent of the volume of the Great Lakes. Because groundwater is out of sight, it is frequently out of mind for the public and policymakers. That must change.
My introduction to groundwater was messy.
It was 36 years ago and I had just taken a job as environmental advisor to the governor of Michigan. I had never thought about groundwater, but suddenly I had to. There was an emergency. A wave of contaminated subsurface water, fouled by toxic chemical solvents, was moving toward the wells that supplied the City of Battle Creek with its public drinking water. This was a potential public health disaster.
State and federal agencies mobilized and, thanks to the federal Superfund program, a solution was rapidly implemented. Workers drilled wells to intercept the contaminants, pump then from the ground, treat them and keep them out of the water supply.
We then looked around and were dismayed to find thousands of contaminated sites that needed state attention. Many of them threatened drinking water supplies.
It was a rude introduction to a problem we hoped to solve in the 1980s, but one that instead remains vexing today. In 1988 and 1998, taxpayers approved bond proposals worth hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for cleanup of contaminated groundwater sites - while the Legislature approved changes in policy that allowed many contaminated sites to remain polluted.
At the same time, some of the most important causes of contamination, like agricultural practices, remain largely unaddressed. We have 6,000 sites for which there is no source of cleanup funding, an estimated 130,000 leaking storage tanks, and thousands of other contamination sources.
In addition to state action, we need changes in public awareness. Our hope at FLOW is that more people will learn about groundwater, value it, appreciate it and protect it. Here are some of our recommendations.
- The state should articulate a groundwater policy and law that reaffirms groundwater is directly connected to surface water as part of a single hydrologic cycle, protecting this paramount public trust resource from impairment and degradation. This will assure it can serve as a sustainable source of safe drinking water, health and sustenance, support healthy ecosystems and serve other societal needs.
- The state should identify a long-term funding source, such as a voter-approved bond, and appropriate funding needed to clean up over 6,000 remaining sites with contaminated groundwater where no other viable party can be found to pay for cleanup. A reasonable estimate of the need is expenditures of $50 million per year for the next 20 years, or $1 billion.
- The Legislature should enact a law requiring all septic systems to be periodically inspected and properly maintained, making Michigan the 50th and last state to adopt a uniform septic code.
- The Department of Environmental Quality should publish a biennial report on the state of groundwater in Michigan including a map and ranking of the 100 contaminated groundwater sites that pose the greatest risk to human health and the environment.
- State government should aggressively prevent, detect and clean up nitrate pollution resulting from farm practices and assist rural communities in obtaining safe, nitrate-free drinking water.
- The Legislature should appropriate adequate funds to enable municipalities, Michigan State University Extension, nonprofit organizations and others to conduct a statewide groundwater education program.
Groundwater is invisible until your well is contaminated. But that does not mean it's unimportant. FLOW's work on groundwater is vital to Michigan’s future, and if implemented correctly, our proposed policies can lead to long-lasting changes for the better.