Wary of water safety, Michigan residents want stronger regulation

Kathryn Dugal of the Center for Michigan

Kathryn Dugal of The Center for Michigan asks audience members about water issues at an October summit in Lansing. The meetings resulted in the release of “Pure Waters: A Citizens Agenda for Water Quality and Affordability in Michigan,” by Bridge’s nonprofit publisher, The Center for Michigan, about state residents’ water priorities. (Bridge photo by Alexandra Schmidt)

Concerns about Michigan water quality continue to bubble up in the Great Lakes State.

From PFAS to lead, Line 5 to Nestlé, agricultural runoff to Asian carp, Michigan faces a host of expensive questions on how to best manage the state’s lakes, streams and water systems.

“Pure Waters: A Citizens Agenda for Water Quality and Affordability in Michigan,” a report released Wednesday by The Center for Michigan, Bridge Magazine’s nonprofit publisher, reveals that Michigan residents favor stronger regulations to improve water quality and safety. 

Residents also say they view the state’s natural and drinking waters as essential to the state’s economic prosperity, public health and way of life. 

Download a copy of the report here

The findings emerged from The Center for Michigan’s “Your Water, Your Voice” public engagement campaign last fall. From September through November, the center gathered input from more than 3,100 residents who participated in a statewide poll, attended more than 20 town halls and solutions summits or responded to a Bridge reader survey. 

A copy of the “Pure Waters” report will be delivered to every state-level elected official to amplify the sentiments of ordinary residents directly to state leaders.

Wary of water, residents want testing  

Fewer than 1 in 10 of Michiganders polled say they trust drinking water is always safe statewide; 1 in 3 said their own community’s water is always safe.

Participants pointed to high-profile water contamination issues, including the Flint water crisis and an increasing number of water systems containing potentially harmful levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals, a group of chemicals known as PFAS used in nonstick household products including Teflon that has been linked to serious health effects.

“How do I know what’s going on when I go to other places?” one resident asked at a town hall. “When I go out of town, I usually use bottled water because I don’t know what’s coming out of that tap. How can we have faith and trust when you’ve heard so many bad stories?”

With distrust in drinking water commonplace, public support for water testing and remediation was high. 

In all, 59 percent of respondents support mandatory lead testing of water in the state’s schools and child care facilities, while 10 percent of respondents said neither step was necessary. 

There is also strong public support for amping up the state’s PFAS response, even as the state already has taken aggressive steps on PFAS contamination, identifying more sites than other states and suing several PFAS manufacturers. Michigan residents polled say they overwhelmingly support increased state spending on PFAS contamination response (70 percent), a faster federal response to contamination (79 percent), and a federal PFAS limit (87 percent).

A panel of water experts and activists discusses the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac at the Center for Michigan’s Great Water, Great Economy Solutions Summit in Lansing in October. (Bridge photo by Alexandra Schmidt)

Fear of environmental catastrophe  

Nearly 7 in 10 residents in the survey say the Great Lakes are in good or great shape. Respondents had more skepticism about the quality of inland lakes and rivers — just over half said they are in good condition.

When it comes to protection of the state’s waterways, poll participants supported the state implementing tighter water quality regulations, including:

  • Preventing a proposed tunnel planned to protect Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac (57 percent support). 
  • Constructing the barrier proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Illinois River designed to keep Asian Carp out of Lake Michigan (87 percent support).
  • Banning groundwater withdrawals for bottled water (67 percent support) and increasing permitting fees the bottlers must pay the state (79 percent support). 
  • Instituting measures to reduce the amount of agricultural runoff into the state’s waterways (69 percent support). 

Arguments against tighter regulations often cited the need to sustain economic development. 

If tradeoffs must be made between environmental preservation and economic development, most Michiganders polled said they prioritized protecting water quality.

Nearly 80 percent of participants said Michigan should “strengthen regulations to protect water quality,” with 3 percent saying the state should “loosen regulations if needed to promote economic growth.” The remainder felt the state should “keep regulations generally the same.”

Several community conversation participants urged state leaders to use environmental preservation as an economic catalyst.

“We should be thinking about both the environment and the economy,” one resident said, “since a clean environment means a booming economy.”

Last year, the state adopted a law dictating that Michigan regulations cannot be more stringent than those set by the federal government, unless the state shows a “clear and convincing” need due to “exceptional circumstances.” 

Three in 5 poll respondents said the state should repeal this law. 

“We always hear from politicians about state’s rights— what we have as a state is unique,” one resident said. “With 80 percent of the [nation’s] freshwater, we should have stricter protections than other states to protect it.”

Affordable infrastructure a concern

Michiganders also say they want the state’s crumbling infrastructure repaired but some worry about the costs.

In 2016, the state’s Infrastructure Commission identified a $1 billion annual funding gap for the state’s public water infrastructure. The quality of the state’s water systems, such as stormwater and drinking water pipes, received a C to D- grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, depending on what part of the system is evaluated. Michigan’s roads scored a D-. 

Nearly 9 in 10 residents polled said this gap should be fully funded. (Respondents were not asked if they were willing to pay higher taxes for this infrastructure work.)

“There is a cost of not doing things,” said one resident. “There is an economic cost for brain damage from lead in water. Pay now or pay later.”

Residents who opposed increased funding for water infrastructure want local or federal funds to cover infrastructure, or said the state could decrease costs over time by learning “good practices and bring these costs down over time.”

Just over half of residents support using water system user fees to pay for increased maintenance or investment costs. A nearly identical proportion support water bill assistance programs and increased state infrastructure aid to high-poverty communities to keep water affordable for low-income residents.

Some residents who opposed affordability programs said communities should address their own infrastructure needs without state involvement.

“There are communities that had the foresight to save up to pay for things, and when there are communities that don’t and the state just gives them money to fix it, I feel like that’s my money they’re giving out,” one participant said.

Six in 10 respondents support increased government oversight of private wells and septic tanks. Michigan is the only state in the nation without a unified septic code, and leaking septic tanks can contaminate surface water and wells with E. coli to the detriment of public and ecological health. 

“If you don’t make people maintain these systems, they won’t,” said one conversation participant. “People will get sick. Increase regulations to keep everyone safe.”

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