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Michigan's Great Lakes are good, but water concerns include lead and Line 5

Michiganders are proud of their thousands of miles of Great Lakes shoreline and rivers — resources that offer relaxation and pump billions of dollars into the state’s economy.  

But Michigan’s lakes and rivers face a wave of challenges. At the same time, the state continues to grapple with new threats to drinking water in communities besides Flint.

Michigan Waters By the Numbers

  • 41.5 percent of state area covered by water
  • 40 percent of Great Lakes jurisdiction
  • 3,288 miles of coastline
  • 76,439 miles of rivers and streams
  • 900,000 acres of inland lakes and reservoirs
  • 6,465,109 acres of wetlands
  • 4.3 million acres of wetlands lost since early 1800s (estimated)
  • $2.5 billion in economic activity from recreational fishing (estimated)
  • 58.75 million tons of cargo shipped and received in-state (2015)
  • 7,200 contaminated sites tracked by regulators
  • 11,000 public water supplies
  • 460,000 lead service lines (estimated)

Sources: American Water Works Association survey, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, United States Geological Survey, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


Water, water everywhere

No state is more water-covered than Michigan. It’s home to more than 76,000 miles of rivers and streams and has jurisdiction over about 40 percent of its bordering Great Lakes. Most of the state sits atop high-quality groundwater.

The Department of Environmental Quality broadly considers 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.

Flint Fallout

Still, water challenges loom statewide.

Expect to hear 2018 political candidates continue to discuss the Flint water crisis — the lead contamination scandal that followed a state-appointed emergency manager’s order to switch the city’s drinking water source — and statewide efforts to curb lead contamination. Michigan utilities have an estimated 460,000 lead service lines, trailing only two other states, according to an American Water Works Association survey. Candidates may debate Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to give Michigan the nation’s strictest regulations aimed at keeping lead and copper out of the water supplies, an idea that could prove expensive.

Top 10 sewage polluting communities in Michigan

Michigan’s aging network of sewer systems means billions of gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage flows into rivers and lakes every year. In 2013 alone, more than 11 billion gallons of untreated sewage escaped as a result of more than 700 combined sewer overflows. Here are the sewer systems that had the highest volume of untreated combined sewer overflow in 2013:

NameUntreated overflow (in millions of gallons)
Wayne County/Inkster51
Port Huron18
Wayne County/Inkster/Dearborn Hts16
Wayne County/Redford/Livonia15

* Detroit also recorded 8,876 million gallons of “partially treated” sewer overflow in 2013

Source: Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

Line 5 Drama

Candidates will almost certainly talk about Line 5, the 64-year-old oil pipeline beneath the Straits of Mackinac that environmental groups say threatens the Great Lakes. The 645-mile pipeline transports 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids each day from Superior, Wisc. to Sarnia, Ontario. Enbridge, the pipeline’s operator, has called the risk of a leak miniscule, and a recent state-commissioned report appears to support that argument. But Enbridge has been scolded for withholding information from Michigan officials about Line 5’s condition, and the company was responsible for the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill, one of the worst inland oil spills in U.S. history.

Wider water woes

Michigan’s waters face other threats, too. Consider:

  • Michigan’s aging network of sewer systems means billions of gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage flows into rivers and lakes every year.
  • Nearly 50,000 of river miles in Michigan face hazards from Polychlorinated Biphenyls, known as PCBs, industrial chemicals known to cause a variety of health effects. Nearly 9,000 river miles are polluted by pathogens, which can cause stomach ailments and rashes or, in extreme cases, organ failure or death.
  • The state has flagged more than two dozen sites where toxic chemicals collectively known as PFAS. That includes shoemaker Wolverine Worldwide’s contamination of drinking water in Kent County, where folks worry about cancer risks.

A changeup in fighting invaders?

Don’t forget about invasive species.

In 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened up the Midwest to commerce from ocean-going ships. The much-ballyhooed project also carved a pathway for dozens of invasive species that have devastated underwater food chains. Each year, Zebra mussels and other invaders chew up (or suck up) well over $100 million from the regional economy, studies have shown. Recent debate has swirled around Michigan’s strict rules for saltwater ships. They are required to use specific technologies to kill invasive species inside their ballast and barred from dumping ballast water in the Great Lakes. Some in the shipping industry have pressed the legislature to relax the standards, worrying environmentalists. Industry calls the rules onerous and say they discourage ships from coming to Michigan ports.

Related coverage from our 2018 Michigan Issue Guide

Fish farm fight

Simmering in recent years is a debate about whether Michigan should allow large-scale cage fish farming in parts of the Great Lakes. Ontario has done so in Lake Erie, but U.S. states have not followed suit. Supporters suggest Michigan could be a world leader in freshwater aquaculture and home to all the science, engineering and manufacturing that would accompany the industry. But environmentalists and anglers have pushed back. Among their concerns: too many fish pooping in one place. Fish waste contains phosphorous — too much of which can starve water of oxygen and trigger potentially harmful algae blooms. Critics also have concerns about diseases and genetics should farmed fish escape their pens and breed in the wild.

Cash strapped

Meanwhile, Michigan officials are worried about losing federal funding for Great Lakes and other environmental projects. Also, the state is running out of money to clean up legacy pollution.  In 1998, voters authorized the state to issue $675 million in bonds for cleanups and other environmental projects. That money’s nearly tapped, leaving work at 7,200 contaminated sites in limbo. If candidates propose new, ambitious environmental projects, ask them where they’ll get the funding.


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