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Among Michigan's Citizen-Led Restoration Projects, Three Noteworthy Models

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

Michigan's land use statutes to protect watersheds from uncontrolled runoff are in desperate need of strengthening and enforcement.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 46.6 million tons of soil erodes in Michigan each year. The largest source of erosion is farmland, at 36.6 million tons a year. Stream banks, gullies, roads, and construction sites contribute more than four million tons annually. Federal scientists add that as Michigan sprawls outward, and the natural landscape is covered with asphalt, the volume of runoff and the amount of sediments and chemicals flowing into water is growing.

"It just feels like cleaning up this lake is something I'm supposed to do."

What happens when weeds full of human waste wash up on the shoreline of a lake that one million people use each summer for swimming and boating? Doug Martz discovered that the answer began with himself. In the summer of 1994 he joined hundreds of Macomb County residents at an emergency meeting and listened warily as state environmental officials blamed the fecal contamination along Lake St. Clair on waste from ducks and geese, and grass clippings.

"I stood up at that meeting and said 'What about the raw sewage that came down the Clinton River a couple of weeks ago,' " Mr. Martz said, recalling his awakening as an activist. "It wasn't something I planned to do. I just did it because I knew they weren't telling the whole story."

While his wife, Patty Martz, earned the bulk of their income, he abandoned his building trade and devoted most of his time to prodding the county and state into acting. Calling himself a "Sludge Buster" he arrived at public meetings and rallies in an old Cadillac limousine fitted with a toilet and loudspeakers on the roof, wearing a rain suit and gas mask, and waving a plunger. Working with his neighbors he gathered reams of in- formation from state files, including data that showed treatment plants were pouring a flood of raw sewage into state waters while the DEQ chose to do nothing about it. The reason: DEQ officials did not want to force communities to spend millions of dollars to modernize treatment plants.

By the winter of 1995 Mr. Martz had become the most prominent citizen activist in Macomb County and had attracted powerful allies in the county government. They included John Hertel, chairman of the county commission, who appointed Mr. Martz to a special task force, and prosecutor Carl Marlinga, who filed a lawsuit to require the state to enforce the law. (See the article on page 15.)

"Doug Martz is a gutsy guy with moral courage," said Mr. Marlinga. "The work he did to bring everybody's attention to the problem-- dressing up and driving that car -- was done at great risk to his own reputation."

"When this thing started, we had a lot of help from neighbors and people who lived in the community," Mr. Martz said. "But most of them saw how bad it was and how much work it would take and they either quit or moved away. There's probably been 100 times that I wanted to give up too. But something keeps the fire going inside. It just feels like cleaning up this lake is something I'm supposed to do."

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