The state of water in Michigan: From Flint to pipelines

This is not another sad story about Flint's ongoing water tragedy.


Yes, Flint's manmade crisis--built on a series of shockingly poor, sloppily covered-up decisions--briefly concentrated minds used to filtering out reports from the long-neglected city. Haltingly, against all odds, it precipitated meaningful action by state policymakers. Had "Flint" not gained notoriety as a byword for government indifference to the plight of the powerless, Governor Snyder likely would never have had the opportunity to sign into law a bill mandating timely reporting of elevated lead levels in municipal drinking water supplies. The bill would never have been drafted.


Does more need to be done to aid Flint's recovery and prevent reruns of its tragedy? Yes, obviously. "Never forget," that tired rallying cry, really does apply here.


Is Flint the only water crisis facing Michigan and its neighbor states elsewhere in Great Lakes Basin? Absolutely not. In financial and human terms, other issues threaten even greater harm. The difference is that they're not in local and national headlines day in and day out. Our awareness of them, such as it is, is dim and ill-formed, broken only by the occasional story about a pipeline accident or tailing pond breach.


The same forces that contributed to the Flint disaster are at work elsewhere in Michigan and the Great Lakes Basin: lax regulation and oversight, indifferent policymaking, an uneven political playing field dominated by powerful and well-funded interest groups, a lack of reliable information about conditions on the ground.


The Great Lakes Basin faces a multitude of water threats: mining runoff, agricultural runoff, pipeline spills. Local and national organizations are working to shape environmental policy, strengthen enforcement, and raise public awareness about these issues. But they can't do it alone. They depend on a knowledgeable, active citizenry--including low-key folks who think activism is for other people.


Mining for Water Problems


Miners have plied Michigan's mineral-rich Upper Peninsula since the 1850s. Rich copper veins extend south from the central Keweenaw, through the South Range, and down into the Porcupine Mountains. The region's population centers--Houghton, Hancock, Calumet--were literally built on copper.


Back in the day, getting that copper out of the ground was pretty straightforward. Close to the surface, the lodes were mainly copper oxide, which is easy to extract without lots of water or harmful chemicals. With little more than pickaxes and elbow grease, miners made short work of them.


Once the easy pickings dried up, mining companies turned to a more destructive method: metallic sulfide mining, a water-intensive process with hazardous byproducts including sulfuric acid. Early on, before state and federal regulators got wise, mines simply dumped sulfide-rich tailings into nearby bodies of water, creating highly acidic cesspools lethal to most lifeforms.


Torch Lake, in the Keweenaw, got it bad. "They all but killed the bottom of the lake," says Horst Schmidt, president of the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition (UPEC). Though there's no longer active sulfide mining in the immediate area, the lake remains impaired.


To the southeast, near Marquette and Ishpeming, Deer Lake--once a prized fishery--landed on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) following an intensive, mercury-aided gold mining binge. The gold is long gone, but Deer Lake remained an AOC for decades before its final de-listing in 2014.


"Even after the mining stops, [lakes] remain polluted and dead," says Schmidt.


Housed within UPEC is the semi-autonomous Mining Action Group, formerly Save the Wild U.P. The Mining Action Group agitates against real and perceived lapses at existing mines, latent environmental threats at shuttered mines, and new mine projects that threaten the Upper Peninsula's forests and waterways.


Those new projects tend to attract the most public support--and outrage.


Even before mines open for business, exploratory drilling and site preparation can leave a mess. Earlier this spring, for instance, the Mining Action Group shared ugly-looking pictures taken at a drilling site near the Porcupine Mountains, in the western U.P. Heavy trucks and equipment tore up the forest floor, leaving a sea of mud sure to run into the nearby Presque Isle River and out to Lake Superior. Though not toxic, topsoil runoff can impede near-shore boat navigation and affect plants and animals that depend on clear watercourses.


At the moment, the Mining Action Group's biggest target is the Aquila Back Forty project, a proposed nickel and gold mine in Menominee County, near the Wisconsin border. It's officially crunch time: The project received the third of four key state permits in early April, with final approval expected by year-end.


"Aquila is very proud of this milestone achievement given that the...permit satisfies both state and federal regulators as it pertains to protecting the Menominee River and surrounding watershed," said Aquila Resources CEO Barry Hildred in the release announcing the approval.


Schmidt isn't convinced. He argues state authorities haven't given enough thought to the risk of aquifer contamination around the mine, which can directly affect river health over time. He, his team at UPEC, and the volunteers at the Mining Action Group are going to keep pushing on this--and on a slew of other mining-related water threats in the Upper Peninsula and beyond.


"Because our state is surrounded by water, we have to be very careful," says Schmidt. "That means pressuring the [Michigan] Department of Environmental Quality and other organizations to do the right thing."


"Regulations only do so much," he adds. "You have to be prepared to defend them."


A Gentler Runoff? Not Really


Mines discharging sulfuric acid into lakes and aquifers? You'd have to be oblivious not to see the problem there.


But what about more diffuse sources of harmful runoff? Modern agriculture is a case in point.


Geneticists have given birth to near-perfect strains of corn and soybeans capable of growing in a stunning range of weather and soil conditions.


Chemists have developed pesticides that kill harmful bugs with pinpoint precision, herbicides that kill weeds without damaging valuable crops, and fertilizers that supercharge plant growth without depleting overworked soils.


Engineers have designed and perfected drainage (or "tiling") systems that minimize flooding and ensure field runoff reaches streams and rivers without carrying too much fertile topsoil with it.


And equipment manufacturers, many with headquarters and/or significant manufacturing operations in the Great Lakes Basin, have constructed ever-larger, ever-more-efficient diesel-powered vehicles for sowing, reaping, and maintaining fields.


You can thank these innovations for putting food on your plate and eliminating the scourge of famine, at least in the developed world. But they have a big downside: in agricultural regions like the southern Great Lakes Basin, chemical-laden runoff threatens ground and surface water supplies, including the Great Lakes themselves.


Phosphorous- and nitrogen-rich fertilizers promote wild algal blooms that drain lakes and ponds of nutrients and oxygen, threatening other life (including game fish). Under the right conditions, toxic blooms poison drinking water supplies; in 2014, a particularly nasty event left the Toledo area without clean water for nearly a week. Pesticides and herbicides compound the damage, killing off sensitive plants and animals, and rendering well water unsafe to drink without filtration or purification. And the older ways aren't without fault, either--excess topsoil erosion caused by old-fashioned farming practices clogs waterways, creating silt dams that hamper navigation and require costly dredging.


These problems are real. Unfortunately, Toledo-style blooms aside, they're also distributed across a wide area. In legal parlance, they're non-point sources, the opposite of the proverbial, highly visible, bright-green sewage effluent.


In Michigan, the most visible advocate for agricultural runoff mitigation is actually a state program: Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP).


MAEAP is a voluntary, "proactive environmental assurance program ensuring that Michigan farmers are engaging in cost-effective pollution prevention practices and working to comply with state and federal environmental regulations." Its approach, basically, is "help us help you." Farmers who participate in MAEAP are far more likely to find themselves in compliance with pollution control regulations--and avoid the costly fines and remediation work doled out to scofflaws.


The program addresses four broad aspects of agriculture: farmstead (chemical, fuel, and hazardous waste); cropping (pesticides, nutrients, and erosion control); livestock (manure storage, feed storage, and lot management); and forest/wetlands/habitats (sustainable management plans for sensitive environments). Participating farmers move through a three-step process: an educational deep dive into sustainable farming practices and regulations, farm-specific assessments and recommendations, and on-site verification by MAEAP staffers. Farmers who successfully complete the program can display a "MAEAP Verified" sign to alert visitors and vendors that they're good stewards.


MAEAP is only as strong as Michigan's drainage laws, though. With minor exceptions, those laws have remained roughly static since the late 20th century. The Michigan Environmental Council, a nonprofit coalition of some 70 Michigan-based environmental groups, agitated for ag-related drainage law changes in the wake of the Toledo bloom--without success.


The political landscape is much the same elsewhere in the Great Lakes region. In Minnesota, the Republican-controlled legislature is taking aim at that state's recently enacted "buffer law." The law increases to 50 feet the required natural vegetation buffer between cultivated fields and "public waters," a vague category that includes many drainage ditches on privately held land.


According to Minnesota Public Radio, lack of compensation for affected farmers is a key sticking point. Environmental advocates argue the law is the least that can be done to address a water crisis in Minnesota's southwestern counties, where "no lakes and only a few the state's quality standards for fishing and swimming," according to a state environmental report.


With Minnesota farmers facing a November 2017 deadline for compliance, and no MAEAP-like body to coax them along, the buffer law is likely to produce a high-stakes legislative showdown. Fortunately, Minnesota has a $1.6 billion budget surplus; some of that money may end up offsetting buffer losses.


There's Oil in Them Thar Lines


Michigan isn't really an energy state.


Sure, Lower Michigan has some hydrocarbon reserves; drive north from St. Johns, on Highway 127, and you'll catch glimpses of oil derricks and gas pumps working quietly amid the corn and cows. But the state's oil and gas supplies mostly come from somewhere else: the Gulf of Mexico, west Texas, North Dakota, Alberta.


How do they get here? Pipelines. Lots of them. After passing through controversial mid-continent pipelines like Dakota Access and Keystone, Michigan-bound hydrocarbons fan out into a dense network of intra-state pipelines--approximately 125,000 miles' worth.


The vast majority of Michigan's pipeline mileage is given over to natural gas: mostly the mains and service lines that distribute gas to homes and businesses across the state. While gas lines aren't foolproof and present serious risks (namely, combustion) when ruptured, they're not as troublesome as the state's 3,000-plus miles of hazardous liquids pipelines transporting crude oil, refined petroleum products (such as gasoline), and highly volatile liquids. When they rupture, these pipelines can cause major environmental calamities.


For all the notoriety it lacks, Michigan's aging hazardous liquids pipeline network has plenty of vulnerabilities. The state's worst pipeline disaster, which oozed more than a million gallons of heavy crude into the Kalamazoo River, happened just a few years ago, in 2010. Caused by a rupture in Enbridge Line 6b, that mishap remains the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history.


Since the mid-1990s, dozens of smaller Michigan pipeline disasters have collectively cost nearly $1 billion, caused at least one fatality, and spilled more than 40,000 barrels of crude oil or equivalents into surface waterways and aquifers.


Partly because of this dodgy track record, there's no shortage of grassroots action around pipeline safety in Michigan. In northern Lower Michigan, for instance, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council's signature issue is the Straits Pipelines, the two-pronged Enbridge oil pipeline that crosses under Lake Michigan near the Mackinac Bridge.


Under the Straits, the 60-year-old pipelines run underground until the 65-foot water depth mark, then poke above the surface and run along the bottom of the lake. In its exhaustive primer on the lines, Tip of the Mitt warns against future heavy crude transport through the lines, noting that "heavy crude, in general, is heavier than water and will sink if released into freshwater"--a catastrophe in the making.


Enbridge swore off heavy crude in an agreement with the state of Michigan, but Tip of the Mitt finds the document unconvincing: "Under the agreement," says the organization, "Enbridge could transport heavy oil through the pipelines in the Straits if 1) the state approves changes to the engineering or operation of the pipelines that allows for transportation of heavy crude oil or 2) if Enbridge is ordered to transport heavy crude by a regulating agency."


State authorities have taken notice of these concerns. In 2015, the Michigan Petroleum Pipeline Task Force, led by Attorney General Bill Schuette and Department of Environmental Quality director Dan Wyant, released a comprehensive report focused primarily on the Straits Pipelines.


The task force took formal presentations from several Michigan stakeholders, including Enbridge itself and the the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council's Oil and Water Don't Mix campaign. The latter made an expansive, legalistic argument that ended with two big asks: that Enbridge be "required to show that the pipelines will neither substantially affect the public use nor impair the public trust and that Enbridge is taking all reasonable steps to protect public uses," and that the "state should require Enbridge to apply for a permit or other new a condition of the continued operation of the Straits Pipelines."


Those arguments proved compelling. Regarding the Straits Pipelines, the task force's findings were frank, even blunt, and probably not what operator Enbridge wanted to hear. Among them:

  • "Prevent the transportation of heavy crude oil through the Straits Pipelines"--a key victory for Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council

  • "Require an independent risk analysis and adequate financial assurance for the Straits Pipelines"

  • "Require an independent analysis of alternatives to the existing Straits Pipelines"


The report is more measured on pipelines elsewhere in the state, recommending things like "coordinate mapping of existing pipelines among state agencies" and "ensure coordinated emergency response training exercises and drills." Important steps, but hardly groundbreaking or hard-hitting. Still, it's encouraging to see that grassroots action--and perhaps a dose of bad luck--is creating real movement on this particular water issue.


Do We Really Need All This Water?


The western United States just emerged from a five-year drought that forced draconian water use restrictions in California and exacerbated already-tense relations between irrigation-reliant farmers and latte-sipping urban liberals. Scientists and policymakers say it's just a taste of what's to come.


In the not-too-distant future, will water be the new oil? That's how Paul Huttner, chief meteorologist at Minnesota Public Radio, sees it. He writes about a (literal) pipe dream that some Western futurists want to make reality: a 900-mile water pipeline from the southwestern corner of Lake Superior, on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, to Wyoming's Green River watershed, part of the Colorado River system. If the idea sounds farfetched now, see how it sounds after another decade of serious drought.


Hopefully that won't pan out; the West Coast has already lured away enough of the Upper Midwest's young people. And anyway, there's no shortage of Great Lakes water takers closer to home.


Waukesha, Wisconsin, a Milwaukee suburb, is barely 15 miles from Lake Michigan's shore. But, owing to the vagaries of topography, it's not part of the Great Lakes Basin. When rain clouds darken the affluent town's skies, the runoff traces a tortured course to the distant Mississippi River, hundreds of miles west.


In keeping with the Great Lakes Compact, Waukesha for years drew its city water from the ample aquifer beneath its well-kept lawns. As the city grew, the aquifer strained to keep up with demand. Depleted aquifers are more vulnerable to contamination; in Waukesha's case, groundwater testing lately showed elevated levels of radium, a radioactive element that occurs naturally in Upper Midwestern bedrock.


Unable to rely on groundwater any longer, Waukesha appealed to the governors of the eight Great Lakes Compact states for a waiver to the Compact's strict prohibition on water exports. At a special meeting in Chicago, the governors unanimously agreed to allow Waukesha to pump as much as 10 million gallons per day from Lake Michigan--provided it returns treated wastewater back to the basin.


The decision sparked a backlash--and a rare moment of bipartisan comity, with Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell and Republican U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, both of Michigan, issuing a joint statement excoriating the "diversion of the precious, finite resource our magnificent lakes provide."


Ironically, the decision may be a net benefit for the Great Lakes Basin. Groundwater doesn't necessarily follow surface water; Waukesha's decades-long groundwater drawdown actually bled water out of the bedrock surrounding Lake Michigan and across the Great Lakes-Mississippi drainage divide. After emerging from Waukesha's municipal water system as treated wastewater, it flowed out to the west, away from the Great Lakes.


According to the Detroit Free Press, a state of Michigan report on the matter found approving Waukesha's request "will stop the current loss of over half a billion gallons of water per year from the Great Lakes Basin."

The Waukesha diversion reminds us human activity can actually benefit our watersheds, and perhaps even restore some measure of natural equilibrium. On the other hand, Flint's tragedy is a constant reminder that ostensibly logical, well-considered initiatives can produce disastrous results. Michigan's water activists work tirelessly, with little credit, to steer state decision-makers and the for-profit companies to which they sometimes appear beholden. But they can only do so much. Ultimately, it's up to us--everyday people--to hold the powers that be accountable for preserving our liquid birthright.

Brian Martucci is a freelance writer covering various topics throughout Michigan and Minnesota.
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