Administration Gradually Building Back Michigan's Once-Laudable Monitoring Program
Claim water quality is improving can't be proved
December 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
One of the keys to protecting water quality is to have a sound and comprehensive monitoring program like the one Michigan operated in the 1970s, when the state was a national leader in environmental protection.
In that era, state regulators consistently collected water samples from about 600 sites statewide. By the mid-1990s Michigan's water monitoring program had disintegrated into one of the worst in the nation, according to government and independent studies. In 1995 the Department of Environmental Quality took water samples from a total of just 13 stations, all on the Detroit River and in Saginaw Bay. As recently as 1990, eight state employees were assigned to monitor water quality -- by 1997, the number had shrunk to two, according to DEQ figures.
Senior leaders of the DEQ said the monitoring program suffered budget and staff cutbacks during the 1980s recession in Michigan, just like almost every other government program. In addition, they said, Gov. John Engler was elected on a platform of cutting government spending, and the monitoring program was not a high priority.
A 1995 report by Thomas H. McTavish, the state Auditor General, changed the Administration's view. It found that Michigan's monitoring program was so inadequate that state environmental officials could no longer make a firm conclusion about "whether the water quality statewide has improved, remained the same, or degraded."
The findings were a setback for the administration's "performance" concept. Gov. Engler and his aides say environmental laws need to be flexible enough to enable companies to reduce pollution through innovation, not simply by command and control regulation. But the flexible approach must "perform," that is, result in less pollution. And performance can only be measured over time with an effective monitoring program.
Prompted by the Auditor General's finding, the DEQ developed a plan in 1997 to improve water quality monitoring. The plan called for increasing spending from $1.96 million to $3.2 million a year, enough to revive many of the old monitoring stations and add an array of new activities to study wildlife habitat, measure contamination in sediments, and gauge the biological health of streams, rivers, and lakes.
In 1998 the Legislature appropriated $500,000 -- about half of what the DEQ asked for -- to begin financing an "enhanced monitoring" program. Also in 1998, Michigan voters approved the Clean Michigan Initiative, which raises $30 million to $40 million over the next 10 years for comprehensive, statewide water quality monitoring.