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Big Drains Flush Sprawl's Pollution Downstream

Michigan Drain Code in dire need of updating

December 1, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

When Jay Siefman first moved into his upscale home on the Franklin River in suburban Detroit, he and his two older children would spend hours exploring the wooded banks of the river. "It was adventurous," Mr. Siefman says of his backyard hideaway on one of the last natural streams in the middle of the metropolis. Then one morning, he said, "I just happened to be walking outside, looked down and, lo and behold, a significant portion of my backyard was gone."

Mr. Siefman learned, in the course of investigating the stream bank disappearance and many subsequent storm water washouts, that he has a chronic drain problem. But it's not his household plumbing that is the source of the torrents that have cut a huge swath through his property and are threatening to topple a neighbor's house into the river. The real culprit is a public drainage system that has, since the 1970s, encouraged endless suburban development on land that was unfit for acres of pavement in the first place.

Hidden Subsidies

The force of the storm water that shoots out of two pipes the size of automobiles toward Mr. Siefman's house is just one graphic example of how much damage years of neglect is now causing property owners and the environment of Michigan. Growing townships and counties in the marshy areas of south-central and southeastern Michigan have traditionally used local taxpayer-financed drainage systems to concentrate runoff and channel it downstream rather than require strip malls and subdivisions to manage storm water on-site.

This substantial subsidy to development was created, and is protected by, a frontier-era law called the Michigan Drain Code. Many county drain commissioners still use broad powers they have under this law to keep flushing damaging loads of sediment, pollutants, and raging water down drains and into Michigan waterways.

The law gives drain commissioners extraordinary authority to build and expand drains at public expense without cost-benefit analyses, environmental impact statements, or meaningful citizen involvement and appeal processes.

The statute got its authoritarian start back in the 1800s, when turning Michigan's wetlands into croplands was a matter of economic and political urgency. By the 1970s the state's vast network of drains, and drain commissioners' power to add onto them, became a convenient and hidden public subsidy to suburban sprawl.

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