Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Watersheds


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

"What we've learned here the last four years is that, basically, communities have two choices," said Mr. Martz, who was a member of the study commission and now is chairman of the Macomb County Water Quality Board, a nine-member panel of citizens and local government officials charged with overseeing the lake's cleanup. "They can take the steps that are needed to solve the problem, or they can let nonpoint pollution turn their rivers and lakes into toilet bowls."

Strengthen Laws Few states are more blessed with fresh water, and are more vulnerable to contamination, than Michigan. The state has 51,438 miles of rivers and streams, 1,390 square miles of inland lakes, 6.2 million acres of wetlands, and 3,250 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. Nearly three decades ago, the state and federal governments approved two general categories of laws to improve the dirty rivers and lakes, and prevent damage to the clean ones.

• Clean water statutes were designed to control chemicals, sewage, and other pollutants that came from factories, treatment plants, and businesses.

• Land use laws were written to safeguard wetlands, protect vegetation along natural rivers, and control erosion from construction sites and farms. (See the article on page 18 for descriptions of Michigan's key laws.) The idea was to maintain nature's ability to absorb and purify rainwater. In doing so, communities would avoid regulations and expensive man-made treatment systems.

State and federal authorities generally agree that clean water statutes have performed fairly well in Michigan for reducing chemical pollution from business and industry.

They have not done as well in reducing nonpoint pollution from runoff, especially in the 1990s. As people moved to suburbs and land was urbanized at a rate seven times faster than population growth, undersized treatment plants have been overwhelmed, spilling billions of gallons of raw human waste a year into streams, rivers, and lakes in dozens of Michigan communities.

The Department of Environmental Quality has been slow to act on the problem. State and federal authorities say that Michigan's land use statutes are in desperate need of strengthening and enforcement.

"The common perception is that we've dealt with chemicals that come out of pipes and things got better," said Jim Nicholas, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey Water Resources Division in Lansing. "But it only got a certain amount better. The next major step in improving water quality is when nonpoint source pollution gets dealt with. It's the most significant uncontrolled source of pollution in Michigan."

Awash in Evidence

Evidence of the need for the state and local communities to seriously tackle nonpoint pollution is mounting across Michigan:

• Last spring and summer the construction of two new golf courses, one along the Cedar River in Antrim County and one on a high bluff over Lake Michigan in Manistee County, produced devastating washouts. Seasonal rainstorms churned across land freshly cleared of runoff-absorbing trees and vegetation and into the water, scouring huge gullies from the shorelines and ruining fish-spawning beds with the murky silt.

• In coastal Berrien County on lower Michigan's west side, heavy pesticide use on fruit crops growing in erosion-prone soil is producing widespread contamination in streams and along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, according to the Great Lakes Commission.

• The DEQ estimates that 26 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted storm water flow into the Detroit River every year. • One-third of the state's large lakes are being ruined by excessive nutrients carried by runoff and other nonpoint pollution sources, according to the DEQ's latest assessment.

• During the past five years, the state surveyed 20,575 miles of the more than 51,000 miles of rivers and streams in Michigan. Of the miles that were surveyed, the DEQ found that almost 10% were too polluted to support fishing or swimming.

• The state's once-exemplary water monitoring program has collapsed. When Macomb County officials quickly needed accurate data in 1994 to help them understand the extent of the fecal contamination from the sewage overflow into the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair, not a single state monitoring station was in place. (See the article on page 16.)

The increasing volume and speed of water washing off the land compounds the problem, said Mr. Nicholas. Since 1978, according to a study by the Michigan Society of Planning Officials, the amount of land in Michigan devoted to parking lots, roads, new buildings, and other urban uses increased 25%. Rainwater hits all these hard surfaces and moves down hills with increasing energy, picking up soil, road contaminants, turf chemicals, animal wastes, and other pollutants. The runoff eventually empties into storm drains, then streams, and ultimately into rivers and lakes. (continued on next page)

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