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For Clean Beaches, Clear Rivers, Enforce The Law

Neglect produces fecal contamination, closed beaches

April 8, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Frank Bartolomeo, who owns the Boat Town Cafe near the entrance to Metro Beach, was making soup the other day for his customers and worrying about the future. Born and raised on the Macomb County shoreline, Mr. Bartolomeo’s memories of the clear clean radiance of summer along Lake St. Clair have been washed away by a torrent of human wastes.

Five years ago, fecal contamination from a billion-gallon sewage overflow in the Clinton River closed public beaches. Every summer since, it’s been the same thing. "As soon as the first beach closing is announced, our business drops 40% to 50%," said Mr. Bartolomeo. "You can’t blame the people. Who wants to swim in filth?"

It’s an article of faith among some leaders in Lansing that environmental laws are an unnecessary burden and that community planning is the second coming of Romanian-style bureaucracy. Lake St. Clair’s continuing troubles should help to clear their heads.

The beach closings and fecal contamination represent the most graphic evidence in Michigan of the enormous costs to families, the economy, and the environment from a systemic failure to enforce environmental laws and to plan for growth. Two years ago, a 31-member commission appointed by Macomb County concluded that rampaging sprawl and degradation of natural lands were the primary cause of the sewage overflows and other contamination polluting Lake St. Clair.

The story is much the same across the rest of Michigan. The state has one of the nation’s most rapidly urbanizing landscapes. In the Detroit region, land is being paved over at a pace many times faster than population growth. In the forested north, bulldozers are becoming nearly as common as power boats. So many naturally absorbent wetlands and fields are now covered with parking lots, roads, shopping centers, and subdivisions that even modest rains cause a flood of runoff.

From the wild Cedar River in Antrim County east of Traverse City to Lake Macatawa in Holland to the Detroit River, state waters are being damaged by torrents of mud, clay, sand, chemicals, oil, and biological debris flowing off the land. The flood of filth also inundates undersized sewage treatment plants, illegally spilling billions of gallons of fecal wastes into streams. In the Detroit River alone, according to state studies, raw sewage and polluted stormwater pour in at the rate of 26 billion gallons annually.

With 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, few states are more blessed with fresh water than Michigan, or have more to lose.

It was only a generation ago that Michigan became one of the first states to recognize that wasteful uses of land harmed water quality. In the 1970s, under Gov. William G. Milliken, three important land use laws were enacted to protect water quality by controlling erosion and preserving forests, wetlands, and other natural features that absorbed and purified rain water. Under Gov. John Engler, though, they all need help:

  • The 1970 Natural River Act was intended to safeguard water purity by restricting logging, construction and other activities along a 400-foot corridor along both banks of designated rivers. Fourteen rivers are protected, but the last was designated in 1988.
  • The 1972 Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act, which prohibits dirt from leaving construction sites, no longer is serving much of a deterrent. The reason: maximum fines are just $500, and enforcement is spotty.
  • The 1979 Wetland Protection Act specifically recognized that wetlands are cost-effective natural resources that serve to store flood water and purify runoff before it enters lakes and streams. Under DEQ Director Russ Harding, though, the agency has an annoying penchant for issuing permits to developers to ruin wetlands and for disciplining its own field personnel who seek to enforce the law.

In addition, a fourth law, the frontier-era Michigan Drain Code, which was designed to turn wetlands into croplands, has become a tool to tax property owners in order to subsidize new development. The Drain Code is in drastic need of rewriting.

A decade of haphazard growth and weak state environmental oversight is now being felt in two ways, neither of them abstract. First, after decades of improvement, rivers and lakes are again becoming too dirty to use. According to a recent assessment by the DEQ, one third of the state’s large public lakes are being ruined by runoff.

Secondly, homeowners are facing soaring water bills. The expense of cleaning water mechanically is turning out to be much higher than if natural lands had been preserved.

Macomb County is recognizing this lesson. Under John Hertel, the chairman of the Macomb County Commission, the county is expressing new interest in preserving open space, better planning, and preventing pollution. County Prosecutor Carl J. Marlinga also is pushing the DEQ to do its job. Late last year, he sued the former Deputy Director of the DEQ for illegally issuing a permit to ruin an 8-acre wetland not far from Mt. Clement.

Lawmakers in the state House and Senate should follow Macomb County’s lead. They have a sworn duty to enforce existing law, and a compelling case for modernizing the vital statutes that protect Michigan’s water.

A version of this article was published in the Detroit Free Press on April 8, 1999.

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