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Love That Dirty Water?

Lawmakers campaign on protection, then run opposite way

May 23, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI Staff
  Many water experts say small inland lakes such as Silver Lake need more legal protection and state support to combat poor water quality, falling water tables, invasive species, and other threats to their ecology.

LEROY, MI — Wells Lake is a relic of the Great Lakes’ natural heritage. Glaciers carved it. A deep spring replenishes it. And so far this rural lake in central Michigan remains largely unburdened by the problems that have disrupted fun and fishing on many other Midwestern waterways — falling water tables, declining water quality, soaring fecal counts, invasive species.

Every week throughout the summer Paul Kilmer, a longtime property owner on Wells Lake, guides his pontoon boat to the lake’s deepest corner and checks its health. He samples the water’s quality, clarity, and temperature; he tracks rainfall, ice cover, and lake levels. About 40 lakeshore property owners contribute $10 a year to fund Mr. Kilmer’s tests. But this neighborly activity has him wondering why the state isn’t doing more to manage the ever increasing activity on and around the lake.

“In 1945, we had about four buildings here,” Mr. Kilmer said recently about the Wells Lake community. “My dad built the fifth. Now we have approximately 50 places, a public boat launch, and a lot more activity on the lake. Many around the lake don’t feel the state is effectively managing access to this water.”

One reason Mr. Kilmer feels that way may be the behavior of the state Legislature, which has allowed a flood of proposals to reform Michigan’s 19th century water law to stagnate. First-term Republicans who ran and won on platforms that included increased protection of Michigan’s water now heavily influence the lawmaking body. But those same lawmakers are now intent on minimizing the government’s role in securing state waters, insisting that business interest and individual rights supersede community oversight.
Lawmakers Talked The Talk
One prominent Democrat thinks this pronounced shift has little to do with genuine political philosophy.

“The majority party clearly is listening to the special interests,” Democratic Senator Liz Brater of Ann Arbor, the assistant minority leader said of the Legislature’s recent voting pattern. “And that has weakened several of the bills. There is some bipartisan support for new protections. But the usual forces are at work here. People start out with good ideas, set goals, and then make compromises. That’s the way the process works. ”

Freshman Republican Representative Howard Walker of Traverse City illustrates Sen. Brater’s point. Mr. Walker campaigned on the popular platform of education, prosperity, community growth management, and Great Lakes stewardship. 

"It’s amazing how all of these issues really are tied together,” he said in a press release that launched his campaign 17 months ago. “Our area depends on a strong economy, but we can't grow at the expense of the natural surroundings and environment that make our area so attractive. There is a long list of items that impact the Great Lakes. And each one needs to be addressed and prioritized in a long-term, sensible plan for protecting Michigan's greatest natural resource. Most importantly, the State of Michigan needs to oversee its Great Lakes water resources.”

Yet Rep. Walker was an ardent supporter of a bill approved by the House that gives beachfront landowners along the Great Lakes free rein to bulldoze publicly-owned wetlands in front of their homes that have been exposed by low water levels. That bill, which takes direct aim at the idea of public stewardship of common natural resources, the central principle of American environmental law,  is now under consideration in the state Senate.

Mr. Walker also is attempting to roll back another grassroots initiative that in 2003 gained significant statewide traction — protecting the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers from unwise development practices with the Natural River Act. He and fellow Republican state Representative Ken Bradstreet of Gaylord introduced legislation that would give townships the authority to decide to accept Natural River protections along designated rivers in their jurisdictions, or not to accept them. Mr. Walker pins his objections to the act on protecting "property rights" of landowners and strengthening "local control," two conservative core values.

“I am real concerned that locals are not directly involved,” he said of the Natural Rivers process at one of 12 recent, statewide public hearings about the Pine and Upper Manistee. That process has taken nearly a decade and has involved local officials, state scientists, and many people who live on or near one of the rivers.

“I appreciate the outdoors,” Rep. Walker insisted. “And I appreciate a natural river. But I am concerned about the process in which we’re going about creating Natural River designations.”

But the effect of giving townships the authority to decide whether or not to participate in Natural River protections eliminates the heart of the law: uniform protection for beautiful rivers along their entire length. And since rivers cross from one township to another, Mr. Walker's idea, if approved say his critics, would render the Natural River Act largely useless.

Capitol Ignores Grassroots Movement
Other lawmakers are also turning against water protection initiatives even as citizens are becoming so concerned about Michigan’s water wonderland that, like Mr. Kilmer, they are volunteering to guard their own local waterways. They are learning about the science of Great Lakes hydrology, prodding government agencies to take action, and even waging expensive courtroom battles to protect a natural resource that the state holds as a public trust.

Lawmakers could help Mr. Kilmer and his fellow water keepers become more organized and effective as a grassroots movement if they passed legislation introduced by Democratic state Representative Chris Kolb of Ann Arbor to establish a Michigan Clean Water Corps. It would provide technical assistance for water monitoring, compile water quality data from around the state, and analyze the cost savings citizen involvement provides state government. But even that modest measure, introduced in January, languishes.

The corps is part of an ambitious program that then Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Granholm unveiled in February 2002 as part of her Clean Water Forever Initiative. It also included comprehensive new laws to protect sensitive coastal areas, reduce sewage spills in rivers, and manage water withdrawals to prevent the draining of aquifers that more than one million households around the state — and Wells Lake — depend on.

Ms. Granholm’s proposals mirrored many of the 66 bold recommendations published in January 2002 by the bipartisan Great Lakes Conservation Task Force, which Republican state Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema of Grandville chaired. But despite that broad, bipartisan consensus on protecting Michigan’s water, enabling legislation remains mostly stalled.

“It’s certainly a disappointing start to this session of decision,” said Dave Dempsey, the policy advisor for the Michigan Environmental Council and author of Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader. “We’re seeing a rollback of coastal wetlands protections and incremental progress on water withdrawal legislation; and a proposal to implement a fee for discharging pollution to state waters is going nowhere.”

In fact, water experts see just two items from the governor’s and the majority leader’s action plans making any significant progress.

Voters were largely responsible for one of them; they approved a $1 billion bond proposal in 2002 that upgrades the state’s aging sewer system to protect streams and lakes. The other, legislation passed in 2001, combats the introduction of invasive aquatic species such as the sea lamprey but does little to protect pristine places such as Wells Lake.

The Real World vs. the Ivory Tower
Other invaders, such as the zebra mussel and Eurasian water milfoil, are already in many state lakes and continue to spread, said Mr. Kilmer, who asserts that such threats can degrade habitats, cost lakefront owners lots of money, and ultimately erode the public’s confidence in elected officials.

“I heard it cost $1.3 million to treat Houghton Lake for that milfoil,” he said, and also noted that zebra mussels could be brought into his small lake through the state-built boat launch at any time. “Just down the road at Rose Lake residents pay $30,000 a year to control it. Officials in Lansing need to get out of the ivory tower and into the real world. When people begin to understand the ecology of our lakes and rivers they seem to take an active interest in making things better.”

But whether the growing concern of increasing numbers of Michigan citizens who treasure the state’s greatest natural resource — its water — will move Lansing to action remains an open question.

“We have a new class of conservative lawmakers, many of whom are ideologically opposed to government,” said Mr. Dempsey. “But the reason our environment — and particularly our water — is better off in 2003 as compared to 1963 is because the citizens pushed for, and lawmakers enacted, new laws to protect people and their natural resources.”

Andy Guy, a journalist covering Great Lakes water issues, recently returned from the World Water Forum in Japan. He manages the Michigan Land Use Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at andy@mlui.org


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