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Michigan’s cherished Great Lakes, clean waters face threats from all sides


With 3,288 miles of Great Lakes coastline and 76,439 miles of rivers and streams, Michigan is practically defined by its access to clean, fresh water.

Michigan state regulators consider the open waters of the Great Lakes and inland waters in either “excellent” or “good” condition, despite significant trouble spots around urban and heavily farmed parts of southern Michigan. 

But waters face a host of challenges, from toxic threats such as PFAS chemicals to rising Great Lakes waters and continued controversy over the aging Line 5 oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, which connects lakes Huron and Michigan.

Flint fallout

Michigan’s challenges were thrust into the national spotlight during the Flint water crisis, when the city’s water supply was contaminated with lead after a state-appointed emergency manager ordered a switch in Flint’s drinking water source.

After the emergency, Michigan adopted the nation’s strictest laws for lead in drinking water, requiring utilities to replace all the state’s roughly 500,000 lead service pipes within 20 years. That could cost upward of $2.5 billion, and leaders of municipal utilities contend the measure is an unfunded mandate.

PFAS chemicals

Michigan has been among the leaders nationwide in testing for PFAS, chemicals that have seeped into water supplies nationwide.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), used in nonstick, waterproof products such as Teflon, are linked to cancer and were used at as many as 11,300 Michigan fire stations, landfills, industrial sites, military bases, airports and other locations, according to state estimates. 

Michigan is suing manufacturers to recover cleanup costs and proposing standards over how much are dangerous to water systems, since the federal government lacks such rules.

Line 5, Nestlé

Two controversies highlight the debate about corporate handling of public resources: the Line 5 oil pipeline and Nestlé’s withdrawals of 400 gallons of water a minute in central Michigan for its Ice Mountain bottled water.

A 66-year-old pipeline, Line 5 carries 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids each day 645 miles from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario. Environmental groups fear a leak to the pipeline would cause an ecological disaster in the lake. 

The pipeline’s owner, Enbridge, said that’s highly unlikely –  and wants to protect the pipeline at the Straits of Mackinac with a protective concrete tunnel. Michigan’s Democratic leaders –  Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel – are seeking to shut down the line by challenging the tunnel in court. 

Nestlé, meanwhile, sparked a national outcry after Michigan regulators in 2018 approved the global conglomerate’s permit to increase extractions and take more than 210 million gallons of water per year from its wells. 

Other water woes

  • The Great Lakes are at or near record highs, just years after record lows. Many fear climate change causes extreme swings, worrying that more increases would harm not only homeowners but infrastructure along Lakes Michigan and Huron.
  • Invasive species such as zebra mussels cause more than $100 million in damages to the Great Lakes, studies have shown, and federal officials fear that far more damage could come if Asian carp reach the lakes.

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