EGLE Director explains efforts to protect West Michigan's water supply, other natural resources

Michigan is in the heart of the world’s greatest freshwater ecosystem, surrounded by 20% of the planet’s fresh surface water. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) is responsible for protecting this resource. The Lakeshore asked EGLE Director Liesl Clark about her department’s efforts to protect natural resources in West Michigan, from our water supply to beaches.
The Lakeshore: EGLE is taking the lead on implementing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Clean Water plan, a historic investment of $500 million in water infrastructure from source to tap. This provides direct investments for communities and helps provide safe, clean water to residents. Are any of these projects along the Lakeshore (or in neighboring regions of Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Traverse City)?
Liesl Clark: We’ve seen tremendous interest from municipalities across the state for funding from various EGLE programs to repair or upgrade drinking water or wastewater infrastructure, which has seen huge underinvestment for far too long. I expect that interest to continue under the governor’s MI Clean Water plan. That initiative is just getting underway. I anticipate that, as we begin to fund projects, we’ll partner with West Michigan communities on initiatives to protect our Great Lakes and freshwater resources. Watch our MI Clean Water plan website for updates on approved projects.
EGLE also administers two State Revolving Fund programs that address drinking water and wastewater infrastructure. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund last year reached the $5 billion mark in the amount financed since 1989 for projects in all 83 counties in Michigan. Between the State Revolving Fund and our Stormwater, Asset Management, and Wastewater grant program, 52 grants and loans have been awarded over the past five years to municipalities in Ottawa, Allegan, and Muskegon counties.
TL: As Michigan wrestles with the emerging contaminant PFAS, the state recently established drinking water standards for seven PFAS compounds that require community water supplies to keep those chemicals below health-based levels in the water they deliver to Michigan homes. How is your department working with local stakeholders to track contamination and address it at the source?
LC: Less than a year after the measures were adopted, Michigan’s strict standards limiting PFAS in public drinking water supplies have been met with widespread compliance among the state’s roughly 2,700 municipal, school, and other public drinking water systems.
When Michigan adopted the new rules, we already knew — based on our testing data — that 90 percent of public water supplies had no PFAS contamination. However, we were tracking roughly 28 water supplies that would likely be out of compliance based on our past water testing data. Over the course of the past nine months, EGLE staff has analyzed testing data and worked on solutions with these water suppliers. More than half now meet standards, and we are continuing to work with the handful of remaining systems to bring them into compliance.
TL: EGLE recently launched the Clean Water Ambassador program, Online Drinking Water Concern System, and Focus on Water Initiative. These programs support learning, listening, equitable solutions, and collaboration at the state and local levels. Can you give us an example of their impact locally?
LC: I love the new Clean Water Ambassador program, and I think it’s a great example of the importance of making connections between state government and residents across Michigan to solve issues in a collaborative manner. In the West Michigan region that includes Ottawa, Allegan, and Muskegon counties, we have 29 ambassadors advising our Office of the Clean Water Public Advocate on water quality issues.
A good example of local impact is in nearby Benton Harbor, where the Office of Clean Water Public Advocate recently created the Benton Harbor Water Outreach Task Force. They held their first community forum on March 31, and are planning a number of outreach events this year to ensure that Benton Harbor residents have access to water filters, updates about lead service line replacement, and access to additional water resources. Through the efforts of the task force, we will continue to build a mechanism for collaboration benefiting Benton Harbor residents, ultimately serving as a roadmap for other communities with water quality concerns.
TL: EGLE piloted a Coastal Leadership Academy for local decision-makers dealing with coastal hazards, such as erosion and flooding from major storms. Can you give us an example of how this is working locally?
LC: This is another program that I think is really important since it brings together community leaders and stakeholders to share coastal resilience experiences. That collective education helps to underscore the specific coastal hazards communities face now and in the future, and it encourages participants to solve problems together, which makes for better local decision-making.
We want to build on a successful Coastal Leadership Academy effort last year in Emmet County, north of Traverse City, where a team of local stakeholders met over three months to set hazard mitigation goals. So, this year, EGLE’s Michigan Coastal Management Program and the Michigan Association of Planning are expanding the academy to target regional coastal communities, plan a statewide workshop, and host a Coastal Resilience Summit in the fall to discuss issues ranging from widespread economic impacts to making sure environmental justice concerns are recognized and addressed.
TL: In the past year, many Lakeshore residents have been impacted by historic high-water levels. What has been the state’s approach to assisting them to address these issues?
LC: High water levels have caused a particular strain on communities along Lake Michigan, but the impacts are being felt in every part of the state. I grew up close to Lake Huron and, when I go back to visit family, I can see how things have changed in the past couple of years as a result of record-high water levels. The good news is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is predicting that water levels won’t be as high this year as last year. However, they will still be above average, so we will continue to see flooding or erosion impacts.
Our department and Gov. Whitmer have been engaged with local officials and residents throughout the state during this period of high waters. And it’s not just the shoreline that’s impacted — it’s inland lakes, rivers, streams, the groundwater table, which impacts agriculture and infrastructure. We’ve seen a huge jump in permit applications for shoreline protection around the state and approved 2,284 permits in Fiscal Year 2020. In the past year and a half, we have approved 386 permits for shoreline protection in Ottawa, Allegan, and Muskegon counties (239 in Ottawa, 85 in Muskegon, and 62 in Allegan). If public health or critical infrastructure is threatened, our staff has been expediting permit approvals for shoreline protection.
We recognize, though, that installing barriers is not the only way to deal with high water levels and erosion, since permanent revetments cause long-term impacts on surrounding property or shoreline. So, we’re making sure other available options are being considered, such as homeowners moving their homes away from the shoreline, instead of installing some form of hardened barrier. The same with critical public infrastructure. This “managed retreat” allows for the beneficial use of coastal properties, while maintaining important coastal processes that will preserve Michigan’s incredible beaches and shorelines for future generations. 
Finally, I want to point out that the governor has called for nearly $5 million for coastal zone management efforts for municipalities around the state to deal with the impacts of high water levels and climate change.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.

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