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Case Study #2: No Rules No Respect

Problem #2 with the Michigan Drain Code

December 1, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  • No Rules — No Respect

Reform Recommendations

  • Require consideration of upstream and downstream consequences.
  • Require major drain work comply with the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.

Big Drains Flush Sprawl's
Pollution Downstream

When Jay Siefman first moved into his home on the Franklin River in suburban Detroit, he and his two older children would spend hours exploring the wooded banks of the river. "It was adventurous," Mr. Siefman said of his backyard hideaway on one of the last natural streams in the middle of the metropolis. Then one morning, he said, "I just happened to be walking outside, not paying much attention. I looked down toward the creek and, lo and behold, a significant portion of my backyard was gone."

Mr. Siefman learned, in the course of investigating the streambank disappearance, that he has a chronic drain problem. But it's not his household plumbing that is the source of the polluted torrents that have cut a huge swath through his property and are threatening to topple a neighbor's house into the river.

The real culprit is a public drainage system that has, since the 1970s, encouraged endless suburban development on land that was unfit for acres of pavement in the first place.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The force of the stormwater that shoots out of two pipes the size of automobiles toward Mr. Siefman's house is just one graphic example of how much damage years of official neglect is now causing property owners and the environment of Michigan. Growing townships and counties in the marshy areas of south-central and southeastern Michigan have traditionally used local taxpayer-financed drainage systems to concentrate runoff and channel it downstream rather than require real estate developers to take responsibility for the new, polluted stormwater they cause.

As suburbs sprawl, downstream property owners and the environment get no respect because a far-reaching water law, called the Michigan Drain Code, still allows local officials to apply the law's 19th century mindset to 21st century realities.

The law started out in the 1800s, when drying up Michigan's wetlands was an economic urgency. No one thought much about environmental repercussions or the value to their neighbors of clean, fish-filled streams downstream or rain-absorbent wetlands upstream. Despite a host of concerns and costs around these issues today, Michigan's county drain commissioners still use the same extraordinary authority their frontier counterparts had to expand drains at public expense. The Drain Code requires no upfront cost-benefit analyses, environmental impact assessments, or meaningful citizen involvement in drain projects.

About Moving, Not Managing, Water
A recent attempt to bring environmental reason into the Drain Code involves the addition of a "watershed management" chapter to the law. This change is supposed to bring some regional sensibility into the process by allowing drain commissioners to work on projects beyond their county and include upstream and downstream communities.

Good idea. But this "watershed management" chapter comes with the same old Drain Code intact and in full force. The Drain Code will still prevent citizens from appealing projects that make no sense financially or environmentally. It will still allow drain commissioners to charge people for projects without having to demonstrate how it benefits anyone other than developers of marshy property.

In fact, the watershed management chapter expands drain commissioners' unchecked taxing and spending powers far beyond their individual counties to encompass multiple counties and municipalities.

Bigger Not Better
The promise of "watershed management" on top of the old Drain Code is only a sugar coating. It would do nothing to require environmentally sensitive solutions to stormwater problems. Drain commissioners would have no obligation, for example, to stop turning natural streams into lifeless stormwater canals, which is what is about to happen to the Franklin River behind Mr. Siefman's house.

Steve Korth, engineer for the Oakland County Drain Commissioner's office, said turning the river into an engineered drain is the best solution to the neighborhood's severe erosion problems. The plan is to line the Franklin River's banks with metal sheeting, rock barriers, and willow plantings and simply send the stormwater down an extended drain.

Mr. Siefman is not satisfied. Putting steel walls on the river so the polluted stormwater can just flow farther and ruin someone else's backyard, or deliver more pollution to the Great Lakes, is no solution, he said. "There's got to be a major stop to this or it's never going to get better."

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