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Protecing Michigan's Lifeblood

Sewage, fecal contamination cause third world threat

December 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Michigan is a state blessed by fresh water. The splendor of our landscape is defined by streams and rivers and lakes. Michiganders celebrate and savor this vital resource -- but after decades of improvement, the quality of our water is on the decline.

From fecal contamination in Macomb County's Lake St. Clair to massive erosion along Manistee County's high bluffs at Lake Michigan, water pollution caused by runoff is worsening. The causes are the failure to plan for orderly growth, and lax enforcement of environmental laws.

The Institute's investigative journalism team spent two months compiling the special report contained in the next 25 pages. Included are plenty of action steps you can take to help turn things around. We hope you will find it informative, and compelling.

Macomb County Problems Sound Alert:

Take Care of Watersheds

A 31-member commission appointed by Macomb County concluded that rampaging sprawl was the primary cause of [Lake St. Clair's] sewage overflow.

Even though he lives on a canal a block from Lake St. Clair in southeast Michigan's Macomb County, Doug Martz readily admits he once didn't much care about what it takes to keep waterways clean.

"I'm a builder," he said. "I would cut down every tree on a lot. I would bury and burn trash. If I changed motor oil I'd dump it on the gravel to keep the dust down. I'd put pesticides and fertilizers on the lawn, right up to the edge of the canal. If some went in the water, I never thought a thing about it."

On June 13, 1994, Mr. Martz got an instant education. A heavy rain inundated sewage treatment plants in Macomb and Oakland counties. More than one billion gallons of raw sewage overflowed into the Clinton River, which drains into Lake St. Clair. Mr. Martz was out building a dock for a friend who lived on the river, a few miles from his house, when the stinking flood arrived.

"The river turned from blue-green, to coffee to grey to black. It was a glob eight feet thick full of tampons and condoms," he recalled. "I didn't worry about what happened to my toilet water until it ended up in my own backyard."

"It was like I was branded at that point," added Mr. Martz, who is 49. "My eyes watered and the stench was so strong it took my breath away."

The consequences of the overflow, which left mats of weeds reeking of sewage on Lake St. Clair's shoreline and closed its beaches, are still being felt in Macomb County more than four years later. Last summer new overflows resulted in the shutting of public beaches on Lake St. Clair for 22 days due to fecal contamination. The lake's marina operators, who manage a total of 10,000 slips, are losing tens of millions of dollars each summer as boat owners cruise other lakes. Several residents say they've been sickened by the contamination. Property values along the lake and the canals have slipped, say real estate agents. Restaurants, hotels, bait shops, and suppliers say their business has been cut in half during the peak summer season.

"Every summer it's the same," said Frank Bartolomeo, who owns the Boat Town Cafe near the entrance to Metro Beach, the largest public beach in southeast Michigan. "As soon as the first beach closing is announced, our business drops 40% to 50%. You can't blame the people. Who wants to swim in filth?"

A Clear Warning
Lake St. Clair's polluted shoreline is a warning to the rest of Michigan. A 31-member commission appointed by Macomb County concluded in 1997 that rampaging sprawl was the primary cause of the sewage overflow and other lake contamination in southeast Michigan. So many naturally absorbent wetlands and fields are now covered with parking lots, roads, shopping centers, and subdivisions that even modest rains cause a torrent of runoff -- also known as "nonpoint pollution." (See the article on page 14.) Undersized treatment plants are inundated, illegally spilling billions of gallons of raw sewage into streams that run into Lake St. Clair. Until recently, state officials have not prosecuted the violations.

In effect, Lake St. Clair's continuing bacterial contamination represents the most graphic example of the enormous costs to Michigan's families, economy, and environment from a systemic failure to enforce environmental laws and to plan for growth.

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