Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / State Senate Committee Considers Risks to Great Lakes

State Senate Committee Considers Risks to Great Lakes

Task force ushers in new era in state stewardship

September 12, 2001 | By Arlin Wasserman
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Testimony of
Arlin Wasserman, Policy Director,
Michigan Land Use Institute

Before the Michigan Senate Great Lakes
Conservation Task Force
Northwestern Michigan College University Center,
Traverse City

On behalf of the Michigan Land Use Institute and its more than 2,200 member organizations, businesses, and households, I want to thank Chairman Sikkema, fellow committee members, and Senate Majority Leader DeGrow for providing this opportunity to comment on the condition and future of the Great Lakes and their tributaries and to provide our advice for future Senate action. The Institute also wants to acknowledge the recent important work of the Senate on this very matter, preventing the introduction of new exotic species and improving how communities treat sewage.

About the Institute
The Michigan Land Use Institute is an independent nonprofit research, education, and service organization founded in 1995. Since then, thousands of Michigan households, businesses, and organizations have joined in support of the Institute's work to establish an approach to economic development that strengthens communities, enhances opportunity, and protects Michigan's unmatched natural resources. The Institute’s mission from the beginning has been to help Michigan avoid the patterns of development that cause pollution, loss of community, rising costs to individuals and governments, and a deteriorating quality of life.

The Great Lakes Define Michigan
Through our work with communities across the state, the Institute has come to realize that the Great Lakes define Michigan, both literally and figuratively. The shores of the Great Lakes literally determine the shape of our state. They also shape and support our communities and our economy. The Great Lakes’ expansive vistas, together with the intimate beauty of inland lakes and streams, raise our everyday quality of life high above that of other states. And our abundant freshwater resources make Michigan a leader in tourism, agriculture, and industry.

The Great Lakes also can define Michigan’s future. They can make us an international leader in the coming decades when water will be the most coveted of natural resources. The demand for freshwater will only increase, and so will its value. And high quality natural environments may be the deciding factor for where ever more mobile businesses choose to locate their new facilities and corporate headquarters.

To take advantage of this future, to wisely manage our liquid assets, Michigan also must improve how it manages the Great Lakes and its tributaries. Existing laws fail to recognize emerging challenges. These laws must clearly define that Michigan citizens own the water and must benefit from how it is used. State regulations must carefully ensure that the largest users of Michigan’s freshwater protect both the quality and the quantity of our groundwater and surface water supplies. And state agencies need better scientific information and clear management goals as they work with local governments to permit a variety of activities in and around the lakes.
In our comments, the Institute hopes to share with you some of its recommendations for how to bring these improvements to bear on three key areas:

  • Ensuring Michigan’s freshwater supply remains pure.
  • Sustainably managing Michigan’s freshwater supply in the face of future demands.
  • Properly managing the vulnerable land-water interface.

On behalf of the Michigan Land Use Institute, I thank you for your time and for your commitment to act when you return in the coming weeks to work in Lansing.

Ensuring Michigan’s Freshwater Supply Remains Pure
Last month the Institute released the results of its extensive research into the quality of Michigan’s surface waters. The findings are troubling. Although the data is incomplete, it has led some water quality authorities to reach the inescapable conclusion that there is virtually no place in Michigan where it is safe to swim after it rains. In our most populous suburbs, bilge pumps rather than buckets better serve residents when their basements flood. And even small communities like Northport, Michigan, often pollute the Great Lakes. The culprit: Sewage. When rains fall, sewage and contaminated stormwater flow into lakes and streams from old pipes, paved surfaces, and treatment plants operating beyond capacity.

Without proper infrastructure in place to treat our wastewater, communities both large and small will fail. In southeast Michigan, older suburbs face a multi-billion dollar bill to build the treatment systems they need. As a state, we must do a better job of managing residential and commercial waste after we flush.

With proper management, great things happen. Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Detroit all have seen the community and economic benefits of improving streambanks, wetlands, and water quality. Ford Motor Company, the prototypical "heavy industry," now is a major leader in the Rouge River cleanup. Anyone can do it. The Senate can make it happen by establishing a comprehensive program to improve sewer and stormwater capacity. The program’s basic components include:

  1. Providing communities with the assistance they need to expand the capacity of their current systems through state sponsored-grants and low-interest loans.
  2. Directing state public health and environmental agencies to assist communities in understanding the limit of their watersheds.
  3. Providing advice for directing new development to areas best suited for necessary infrastructure, or slow down development when the consequences to water quality are too damaging. Leelanau County last month stopped all permits for "holding tanks" — the most basic and ineffective method for storing raw sewage onsite for future treatment. In Oakland County, the drain commissioner just set up an advisory committee to deal with similar challenges.
  4. Promoting smarter growth policies by recognizing that the ability to treat wastewater can shape patterns of growth. The Senate should provide free programs for existing communities to treat their wastewater and raise the local cost for building new public water and sewer systems in undeveloped and sparsely populated areas. The state also should consider financing only those rural programs intended to meet immediate health and environmental concerns and not participate in efforts to promote suburban style development in agricultural and open lands.
  5. Improving the regulatory practices of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which is now creating new rules about how to manage contaminated industrial sites under Part 201 of the Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. The Senate should ensure the DEQ’s new regulations prohibit any toxic contaminants from running off polluted sites through groundwater and into the Great Lakes and its tributaries. The state should not tolerate any decisions to allow our waters to be polluted through inaction. One of the most troubling consequences of Michigan’s innovative laws to promote the redevelopment of contaminated sites has been the contamination of waters that run under and through communities. A simple change in rules can dramatically improve the quality of our freshwater in the future.Directing the Department of Environmental Quality to re-establish its program to carefully and frequently monitor the health of Michigan’s waters. The DEQ must provide managers, policymakers, and the public with complete, accurate, and timely information about how the state’s efforts are proceeding and continue to improve water quality programs.

Sustainably Managing Michigan’s Freshwater Supply in the Face of Future Demands
Water quality is no more important than water quantity. Without an adequate supply of freshwater there is no quality of life, no community, and no economy. Right now Michigan has one of the largest supplies of freshwater in the world.

While only a handful of townships in Saginaw County, as well as Cannon Township north of Grand Rapids, now are experiencing shortages, Michigan’s future water supply is far from secure. Current water policies reflect the 19th century frontier mindset that water resources are inexhaustible; that the state’s water is free for the taking regardless of the future consequences. Private companies are now taking advantage of these outdated policies as evidenced most recently by the Perrier Group of America, the bull of the bottled water market and a subsidiary of Nestle.

In August 2001 the state of Michigan granted Perrier permission to drill two wells in central Michigan and withdraw more than 210 million gallons of Great Lakes spring water each year for sale in plastic bottles nationwide. That’s 54 million gallons more Great Lakes water per year than the Canadian-based Nova Group proposed to withdraw in 1998, before international pressures ended their plans. In future years, Perrier also plans to double its water withdrawals from central Michigan. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality already has approved additional pipelines for the purpose and indicated it will approve the higher pumping rate.

Moreover, the citizens of Michigan receive little benefit. Perrier has made some voluntary commitments to make a modest investment in environmental protection and create a few local jobs. The next applicant need not make even these gestures. Any company can pay a small application fee to install a new well. Under current laws, approval is nearly automatic.

The Senate should enact new water laws to ensure that in the future Michigan’s citizens benefit from the use of our freshwater and that we retain abundant water resources on which to build our future prosperity. Specifically, the Institute urges the Senate to:

  1. Restrict additional commercial transfer of water out of the Great Lakes watersheds. The Senate should then hold hearings to gather public input regarding what criteria, such as humanitarian need, must be met when authorizing future transfers.
  2. Design a new water protection statute. Current state water policy is inadequate because it focuses almost solely on ensuring the quality of water, not the quantity. Policymakers should recognize that clean, fresh water is a finite and threatened resource. Michigan should advance sound management principles that are rooted in conservation and recognize that water supplies are part of a system of surface and groundwater that are inextricably connected.
  3. Expand and strengthen rules for reviewing and permitting new, high-capacity wells to ensure the safety and supply of groundwater and that reasonable future community needs are met before authorizing transfers out of the watershed.
  4. Improve water use monitoring by mapping underground water systems; keep detailed, up-to-date records on the physical characteristics of underground aquifers; and require managers of large groundwater wells to report the amounts of water they withdraw.
  5. Establish a Water Resources Trust fund, similar to the existing Natural Resources Trust Fund, to enhance research, stewardship, quality, conservation, and restoration of Michigan’s waters. Royalties from existing and future high-capacity users of groundwater would support a proposed Water Resources Trust Fund, just as royalties from oil and gas development on public lands support the Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Properly Managing the Vulnerable Land-Water Interface.
Michigan citizens drink Great Lakes basin water supplies. Michigan businesses depend on it. But we experience it most richly at that vulnerable place where the land meets the water. Children wade at a riverbank. We spend a day at the beach. We build a house on the lake. A village swells with tourists who leave take pictures and memories away, leaving nothing but footprints and their vacation dollars behind to support hundreds of small businesses. And we build shipping docks and factories. Above all, we protect the shoreline and dunes for future generations.

These many competing interests place great demands on both state regulators and local government officials charged with managing this fragile interface of land and water. Lately, some state officials have lost their sense of direction. The Department of Natural Resources and the DEQ often advance policies that conflict with one another. Development permits are granted without consideration of conservation management goals. And conflicting developments are permitted by state agencies and local governments, as evidenced by proposals to build high-end homes and golf courses in sensitive areas along the shoreline while at the same time opening these areas up for oil and gas development. Only a select few people want an oil well near their multi-million dollar beachfront homes. Today two marquee examples — South Fox Island and Great Lakes drilling — demonstrate how the state lacks, and needs, clear management goals.

At present the DNR is promoting a plan to exchange public beachfront property on South Fox Island in Lake Michigan for private upland property. Among the most troubling aspects of this plan is that the public will lose more than a mile of beachfront as well as good access to the island by boat.
Despite what today’s low lake-levels may lead one to believe, no one is making any more beachfront property on the Great Lakes. Buying new public beaches will only grow more expensive over time but will be in greater demand as Michigan’s tourist economy and resident population grows. The Senate should direct the DNR to establish a policy to improve public access by exchanging waterfront property only when the state receives more and higher quality frontage on the same body of water. And the state should place a high priority on buying additional public waterfront property through the Natural Resources Trust and a new Water Resources Trust Fund.

At the same time the DNR also is considering leasing the rights to explore for oil and gas beneath the Great Lakes by drilling directionally from the shoreline, even though state policies to carefully manage this exploration are inadequate. The natural resources agency again is failing to consider the full spectrum of issues and sorely lacks clear management goals to guide its work.

This is not true for everyone however. Every major candidate for governor, the U.S. Congress, and leading state lawmakers all have looked at the risks to the shoreline and the water for the very small amount of energy that directional drilling would bring to market. The unanimous conclusion: The risks are too great. Now this Senate Task Force is holding hearings to study this and other related issues. The Institute believes the Senate will reach the same conclusions.

The Michigan Land Use Institute has recognized the unacceptable risk to the shoreline for several years, and the Michigan Environmental Science Board confirmed our findings in its 1997 report on the issue, which was prepared at the request of Governor Engler. The Science Board concluded that then-current state policies were inadequate and recommended seven key changes, including a ban on new industrial infrastructure in the coastal zone and development of a comprehensive coastal energy plan involving local governments and key stakeholders. It also recommended that no leasing occur until the changes were made and a plan developed. This simply hasn’t happened, and if the DNR proceeds with its leasing plans, it will raise serious obstacles to implementing the best scientific advice. If the Natural Resources Commission and DNR Director K.L. Cool won’t enact a prohibition against drilling from the shores of the Great Lakes, then the Senate must do so.

The Senate also should heed the advice of the Michigan Environmental Science Board and direct state agencies to develop a comprehensive plan for managing the shoreline, balancing the multiple interests and competing goals. Creating a kind of "Marshall Plan" for our Great Lakes and coastal region will help provide the clear management objectives our state regulators sorely lack and allow citizens and lawmakers to create the broad vision needed to manage this irreplaceable natural resource. To begin this planning process, the Institute recommends that the Senate take several steps, including:

  1. Restricting new state permits for industrial development, including oil and gas drilling, within one mile of the shoreline — the Coastal Zone — until a comprehensive plan is completed.
  2. Publish a discussion of the competing interests and current concerns as a result of these hearings held tonight and through the end of the year.
  3. Raise the status of the Office of the Great Lakes, and have it convene a planning committee of state regulators, lawmakers from shoreline districts, and appointees from municipal, township, and county governments to create a specific planning process and timeline.
  4. Refine the Coastal Zone Management Program so that it addresses high priority issues and advances the planning process.
  5. Seek additional federal funding as needed.
  6. Adopt comprehensive plans, lake by lake, region by region.
  7. Have state permitting agencies, including the DEQ, DNR and Department of Community Health, annually report on the progress towards meeting these goals, challenges faced, and recommendations for refining management goals and comprehensive plans.

By doing so, the Legislature can provide the vision, clarity, and objectives necessary to steward this irreplaceable natural resource. Michigan will emerge as a leader in the Great Lakes community, raising itself higher in the eyes of the world, and building a successful, strong economy on the wise management of its most valuable resource — water.

Again, on behalf of the Michigan Land Use Institute, I want to thank the Senate for the opportunity to speak, its efforts to listen and learn, and its good work in the future.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org