Michigan Land Use Institute

Thriving Communities / News & Views / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Love That Dirty Water?

Love That Dirty Water?

Lawmakers break promises, turn against increased protection

June 16, 2003 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Volunteers who monitor the health of Michigan waterways like Wells Lake say they need more state help defending them.
MLUI/Andy Guy

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 has escaped the problems that have disrupted so many other Midwestern waterways — falling water tables, declining water quality, 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 to sample its quality, clarity, and temperature. Other lake property owners contribute $10 a year to fund this neighborly activity, but it has him wondering why the state isn’t better managing the ever-increasing activity around the lake.

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

One thing making Mr. Kilmer feel that way may be 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 protecting Michigan’s water are now running the other way, insisting that business and individual rights supercede community rights.

Lawmakers Talked the Talk
“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. “And that has weakened several of the bills. There is some bipartisan support for new protections. But the usual forces are at work here.”

Freshman Republican Representative Howard Walker of Traverse City illustrates her point. He campaigned on a 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…Most importantly, the state of Michigan needs to oversee its Great Lakes water resources.”

Yet Rep. Walker and fellow Republican Representative Ken Bradstreet of Gaylord are attempting to roll back a popular grassroots initiative to apply the state’s Natural River Act to the Pine and Upper Manistee rivers, which would protect them from unwise development. Mr. Walker pins his opposition on a property rights theme — local control.

“I appreciate a natural river,” Rep. Walker insisted. “But I am concerned about the process in which we’re going about creating Natural River designations. I am really concerned that locals are not directly involved.”
But Mr. Walker’s critics point out that the public process has taken nearly a decade and involved local officials, state scientists, and many people who live on or near one of the rivers.

Capital Ignores Grassroots Movement

MLUI/Andy Guy
Meanwhile, citizens are becoming so concerned about Michigan’s water wonderland that, like Mr. Kilmer, they are voluntarily guarding their own local waterways, prodding government agencies, and waging courtroom battles. Lawmakers could help these water keepers by passing legislation introduced by Democratic Representative Chris Kolb of Ann Arbor that would establish a Michigan Clean Water Corps. It would provide technical assistance and compile statewide water quality data. But even that modest measure languishes.

The corps is part of a program that then-gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Granholm unveiled in February 2002. It also included new protections for coastal areas and management of water withdrawals to prevent draining aquifers that one million Michigan households — and Wells Lake — depend on. Ms. Granholm’s proposals mirrored recommendations published in January 2002 by the bipartisan Great Lakes Conservation Task Force, which Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema of Grandville chaired. But legislation remains mostly stalled.

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

Just two items from the governor’s and the majority leader’s action plans have progressed. Voters approved a $1 billion bond proposal in 2002 that upgrades the state’s aging sewer system, and the Legislature approved a law meant to combat invasive aquatic species such as the sea lamprey, but it does little to protect Wells Lake.

The Real World vs. the Ivory Tower
Other invaders, such as the zebra mussel and Eurasian water milfoil, are spreading through the lakes, said Mr. Kilmer, who asserted that such threats degrade habitats, cost lakefront owners lots of money, and erode public confidence in government.

“I heard it cost $1.3 million to treat Houghton Lake for that milfoil,” said Mr. Kilmer. “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.”

Whether the growing concerns of Michigan citizens about their water will move Lansing will depend on motivating citizens to hold lawmakers like Mr. Walker accountable for promises made during their campaigns.

“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 writes about Great Lakes water issues for the Institute from its Grand Rapids office. All of his articles are available online at www.mlui.org. Reach him at andy@mlui.org.

Michigan Land Use Institute

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