Opinion | Six ways Gretchen Whitmer and lawmakers can protect Michigan water

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.

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Dick Hooker
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 8:37am

Protecting our water should be Michigan's number 1 priority. Bad roads may take their toll, but if we kill our water, there's simply no reason to live here any longer.

Dan Moerman
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 9:06am

Thank you, Mr. Dempsey. I note only that you did not mention PFAS. It is very important to recognize that "everything is connected." Lake Michigan, and the water in my faucet from my well, are all the same water. Lake Huron, too. Pollute it in one place, and you are polluting it everywhere. Sooner or later.

Roger Rayle
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 9:44am

A good first step would be to require groundwater contamination site investigators to provide their data, maps, cross-sections diagrams, etc. in USABLE industry-standard electronic formats... something that would help all stakeholders evaluate contamination control and cleanup... something the DNR/DEQ/DNRE/DEQ & now EGLE has not yet been able to require.
It's hard enough modeling the reality of groundwater contamination without polluters obfuscating it with last century reporting formats, but we do our best... e.g. https://youtu.be/Qu5YxXG2v2A

Jan Petersen
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 9:45am

Thanks for wording this so clearly. I would like to add support for the ongoing efforts to restore operational funding to conservation districts. Michigan's network of 75 locally governed conservation districts are truly designed to respond to local conservation problems with education and technical support.

Michelle Hurd R...
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 9:48am

Perhaps GW should create the position of “Water Advocate”. I know the perfect guy for the job.

Joseph Virgona
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 11:40am

I enjoy the knowledge and aware of our fresh waters reports. The only issues in areas such as Shelby Township is the ground disturbances of newer homes in farm lands. Nature is controling most polutants but man is implanting added fertilizers on shallow well zones. See, Shelby was built on swamp lands years ago when farmers cleared the land. So shallow wells is a big issue out here. I too have 2 wells on my lot. But these NEW RESIDENTS are ignorant and push these fertilizers monthly. WHY NOT CONTROL FERTILIZING Land zones. MORE PEOPLE SPELLS MORE POLLUTANTS. Thank you. Pure Michigan. Joe Virgona

Tom Hamilton
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 2:24pm

Tell Gov. Whitmer she needs to leverage the sovereign nation's power over Trump and his Snyder Engbridge Line 5 corporate polluters. Frank Ettawageshik, executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan, CORA, SON, NMEAC, and FLOW need to permanently plug Line 5. Redeem Michigan's environmental integrity that was destroyed by the Engler/Snyder administrations to protect our sacred Great Lakes waters.

Tom Hamilton
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 2:28pm

Tell Gov. Whitmer she needs to leverage the sovereign nation's power over Trump and his Snyder Engbridge Line 5 corporate polluters. Frank Ettawageshik, executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan, CORA, SON, NMEAC, and FLOW need to permanently plug Line 5. Redeem Michigan's environmental integrity that was destroyed by the Engler and Snyder administrations to protect our sacred Great Lakes waters.

Mary Ellen Krieg
Mon, 04/29/2019 - 4:21pm

We continue to permit mining in the UP without independent hydrological studies, and allow mining companies to under fund their surety deposits for cleanup. What could possibly go wrong? We are also allowing political manipulation of Michigan's mining law 632 to be weakened. "Watered Down" all puns intended. Creating new contamination. When do we just say no more?

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 8:01pm

Just keep up the FRICKEN FRACKING. and we will continue to mess with our waters and aquafers. In some counties in Northeast Mi. you can light a match at your kitchen sink. peace R.L.

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 8:04pm

A wise man once said never drink water down stream from a herd of cattle. Bottoms up. Peace R.L.

Mike Lueck
Tue, 05/07/2019 - 4:28pm

There are many facets to protecting potable water. One of the most misunderstood is Cross-Connection Control and Backflow Prevention. Many health hazards are directly connected to our potable water systems in residential and commercial connections. Common things like garden hoses and in ground irrigation systems directly connect e-coli, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers and other hazards directly to the water in our homes and businesses. Boilers in schools are connected to the same plumbing that supplies drinking fountains. Think of all of the uses of water in factories, hospitals, restaurants, car washes, dentist offices, mortuaries and any business or building that contain hazards. Common equipment, practices and occurrences including booster pumps, water main breaks, hydrant flushing and fire fighting can back pressure or back siphon these harmful contaminants into our homes, businesses and water mains polluting entire neighborhoods and communities. We have the technology to minimize these conditions. Installation and regular (annual) testing of backflow prevention assemblies are effective measures in controlling these Cross-Connections and protecting public health. There are requirements that every water supplier have a comprehensive program to protect these Cross-Connections and the quality of the public water supply. Lack of enforcement, and politicians and city managers that want to weaken the requirements place or water supply and the public health at risk. Technicians must pass written and practical exams to be certified to test the backflow prevention assemblies and must demonstrate their knowledge and skill by re-certifying every 3 years. Enforcing Cross-Connection Control requirements will add the demand for skilled jobs in addition to protecting drinking water and the public health. Who is opposed to creating the demand for skilled jobs? We need to all work together to protect our precious water from every threat. This will require educating the public to understand the dangers and demand action as well as holding those responsible to protecting our water and public health from all of the threats. Cross-Connection Control and Backflow Prevention should be a Seventh way for the Governor and lawmakers to protect Michigan water which in turn protects the public health.