Ten surprising facts in Michigan's new water strategy

Crafting a 30-year strategy to position Michigan's abundant (and awesome) water assets in a national and global context is no easy feat. MEC is grateful to Governor Snyder for asking for such a plan, and to Jon Allan and his team at the Office of Great Lakes (OGL) for pulling a laudable draft of one together.

More discussion of the water strategy is below, but first, here are the top ten surprises I found in digging through the document. Take a look for yourself, and see what surprises you!

1 Michigan has more than 1.3 million on-site wastewater systems (septics), but is the only state without a specific law regulating them. No central system exists to track the locations or conditions of these systems as Michigan lacks a statewide sanitary code that would require inspections. Only 11 of Michigan's 83 counties conduct septic inspections at the time of a real estate transaction. (See the cover story on sewage-tracking dogs for more about our state's septic systems.)

2 More than half of all new single-family houses built today in Michigan are not serviced by a public wastewater utility but instead rely on individual septic systems. The report estimates that at least 130,000 systems statewide are likely failing and discharging as much as 31 million gallons of sewage per day.

3 Michigan has more than 1 million private domestic wells, more than any other state in the U.S. While public water supplies are subject to oversight and inspections to ensure their quality and safety, individual residential water well owners are responsible for the maintenance of their own wells, and the siting and construction of these wells is handled at the local level rather than at the state level.

4 The state has an estimated 2 million improperly abandoned wells, each of which poses a risk to groundwater resources by providing a potential conduit between the surface and underground aquifers, or between aquifers.

5 Michigan has more than 8,500 leaking underground storage tanks and more than 9,700 other sites of environmental contamination. Twelve of Michigan's original 14 designated Areas of Concern remain on the list of areas with legacy contamination. Clean-up funds and monitoring funds from previous statewide bonds are within a few years of disappearing, and no replacement source has been identified.

6 About 8,500 of the state's more than 10,500 public water systems rely on untreated or minimally treated, high-quality groundwater sources. Protection of groundwater resources is critically important for environmental and social use. That means we need both proactive protection of headwater areas and groundwater recharge zones, along with action to deal with legacy pollution (e.g., the massive Mancelona TCE plume that recently made it into Scientific American magazine).

7 More than 2,500 new high-capacity irrigation groundwater wells have been registered for installation in Michigan in just the past four years. Total agricultural water use continues to increase, meaning the state needs to reconvene its water withdrawal assessment tool review team sooner than later in order to ensure we have the best information available about the impacts of these new wells.

8 Michigan has 35,000 miles of public drains. They are all heavily modified forms of their former selves (we used to call them streams and rivers), and as MEC board member Dr. Bryan Burroughs recently wrote, our system of drain management needs a serious look.

9 An estimated 7,000 pounds of mercury was emitted in Michigan in 2002, the last time an inventory was completed. That contributes to advisories to limit consumption of fish from our waters. About 37 percent of the mercury came from coal combustion and about 30 percent from "purposeful use" of mercury.

10 In the U.S., more than 13 percent of our total electrical energy goes to pump, treat and heat water supplies. The Huron River Watershed Council validated and explored this connection in a 2014 report, The Carbon Footprint of Domestic Water Use in the Huron River Watershed.

These facts, surprising and challenging and eye-catching as they may be, aren't really the best part of the new water strategy. And despite the draft's hefty 60-plus recommendations, it won't satisfy any group or individual focused narrowly on a single issue of water policy, whether it's pipeline safety or climate change or agricultural runoff or water shutoffs in Detroit. It's not perfect by any means.

But to my mind, that's not really the point, either. Last summer, as I worked with our partners at the Erb Family Foundation, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter to help the OGL host a successful community conversation on the draft water strategy in Detroit, it became clear to me why the draft–even if not perfect–is such a significant undertaking and important accomplishment.

More than 75 people came to the meeting, hosted at the new DNR Outdoor Adventure Center on the Detroit Riverfront near Milliken State Park and Harbor. They included passionate water justice advocates–understandably angry over water shutoffs in the city–and college professors with blueprints in hand for creating more surface water infiltration through expanded green infrastructure.

The wide-ranging discussion that ensued–likely mirrored in the OGL's other stops around the state last summer–didn't achieve consensus on any single, overarching water challenge or opportunity. Instead, it accomplished something perhaps more important: It highlighted the pervasive role of water in this state. It's what we drink, it's where we play, it's who we are.

It is Michigan's one common, irreplaceable and unequivocal asset, universally loved and deeply valued from bustling city street to sandy shoreline dune, from riffled river bend to rain-soaked farm field. And thus, the strategy offers not a single silver bullet to fix Michigan's water woes, but a catalog of issues and a framework for rethinking not just the water itself, but our individual and collective responsibilities and relationship to it.

So watch as wildfires ravage drought-stricken California and the rapid depletion of the massive Ogallala Aquifer jeopardizes the High Plains bread basket, and be grateful to be living in the Great Lake State, and to have the chance to argue, plan, study and steward this rich gift of ours. Pick up the water strategy and start reading.

For More Information
The draft document, Sustaining Michigan's Water Heritage, A Strategy for the Next Generation, is available at michigan.gov/waterstrategy

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