Michigan groundwater threatened by silent crisis

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Capital News Service

LANSING — A “silent crisis” is brewing beneath Michigan that threatens what experts say could be considered the sixth Great Lake.

It’s hard to imagine a state that enjoys 3,288 miles of freshwater coastline, 242 streams and 11,000 lakes and ponds could be in danger of droughts like those in the western United States.

But if groundwater management trends continue, that’s precisely what’s on the horizon for Michigan, according to Liz Kirkwood, the executive director of the water advocacy organization FLOW: For Love of Water based in Traverse City.

Among the threats that worry Kirkwood are deep-well injections that store hazardous chemicals underground.

“Even though those injected wells are confined, there’s room for error and contamination,” Kirkwood said. “If you mapped all the deep injection wells across the United States, it’s sort of a pin cushion of a lot of toxic waste right underneath our feet.”

Another worry is PFAS, a bio-accumulative chemical that is “really mobile in water” and could leach into groundwater supply. Another worry is a deafening lack of awareness of the nature of groundwater.

“It’s a bit of a silent crisis,” she said. “It’s not priority.”

Michael Beaulac, a senior project administrator for the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, echoes many of Kirkwood’s worries. Like anything else below ground, groundwater maltreatment is “out of sight, out of mind,” he said.

“People don’t know about it and assume that it’s taken care of,” Beaulac said. “We’re just waiting for the shoe to drop in some circumstances.”

But there’s a bigger problem on Beaulac’s mind.

“We’re running out of groundwater,” he said.

“We’re either going to run out in isolated areas due to overuse, or we’re going to have a water quality problem, and a water quality problem is a water quantity problem.”

The Department of Environmental Quality says that 700 million gallons of groundwater are extracted every day for drinking water, irrigation and industrial use in Michigan. Rural areas of the state are already experiencing drought due to aquifer contamination, Beaulac said. Sinking new wells is one solution – but it comes with a price tag.

“It’s costly to sink new wells,” Beaulac said. “The end result is that you’re going to see an increase in your water bill.”

Kirkwood and Beaulac stress that a preventive approach is key, and that starts with reforms in Michigan’s groundwater policy. Michigan has the most private drinking wells of any state — 1.25 million wells drawing 231 million gallons of groundwater per day, according to the state — but it’s the only one without a statewide law protecting groundwater from sewage tank leakage.

“We’ve got 130,000 septic tanks that are failing, and 6,000 groundwater sites considered orphan sites with no funding for clean up,” Kirkwood said. An orphan site is a contaminated or undrinkable water well that has been abandoned, and whose owners cannot be found nor held accountable.

“Current groundwater policies are asking the public to abandon those waters, and that’s the wrong path and the wrong signal for state policy,” Kirkwood said. “You don’t just make a mess — you actually have to clean up.”

There’s no uniform system for septic tank inspection in Michigan, either, Beaulac said. What Michigan does have, however, is “an awful lot of info tied up in databases” that needs proper interpretation to be useful in groundwater policy.

“We need a better handle on the data if we can’t afford to sink monitoring wells – and we can’t,” Beaulac said. “We’re not making the right decisions.”

And with nearly half of Michigan living off groundwater, there’s no time to waste.

“I think comprehensive reform is important, and we need more data and modeling of our current resource. We can’t make informed decisions without it,” Kirkwood said. She is uneasy about the future of what she calls Michigan’s “sixth Great Lake.”

“If you think about the history of water protections in this country, it literally took a fire on the Cuyahoga River to capture the American imagination and true understanding of how badly we’ve treated our surface waters,” she said, hearkening back to the 1969 polluted river fire featured in Time magazine.

But Kirkwood hasn’t lost all hope.

“People don’t want to live in communities blighted by toxic wastes, and we’ve seen a revival across the Great Lakes to help rebuild our rustic cities,” she said.

To do that, Kirkwood says, Michigan must recognize the importance of “protecting our groundwater with the same vigilance we protect our surface water.

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