Michigan’s Sixth Great Lake
Groundwater runs beneath our feet but doesn’t get a fraction of the attention we give the Great Lakes
By Ren Brabenec | July 29, 2023
The U.S. Geological Survey defines groundwater as “Water that exists underground in saturated zones beneath the land surface. It fills the pores and fractures in underground materials such as sand, gravel, and other rock, much the same way that water fills a sponge.” Nationally, groundwater is the source of about 40 percent of water used for public supplies and about 39 percent for agriculture.
Michiganders rely on groundwater at even greater rates. About 44 percent of the population gets its drinking water from the ground. The state’s agricultural enterprises use about 187 billion gallons of groundwater annually, double the amount in 2009. Groundwater supplies 25 percent of the volume of the Great Lakes and plays a vital role in creating cold-water habitats for trout streams and endangered flora and fauna.
Despite its importance, Michigan’s groundwater suffers from being out of sight, out of mind.
“We quite literally rely on groundwater to live,” says Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water (FLOW). “But unlike Michigan’s lakes, rivers, and streams that we can see, Michiganders can’t see groundwater, so it’s often forgotten.”
When a core natural resource doesn’t receive the attention it deserves, it becomes threatened. In the case of groundwater, entire aquifers (huge underground storehouses of water) across the state have become contaminated by failing septic systems, agricultural runoff, abandoned wells, and legacy contamination from now-closed sites.
Septic Issues Are on the Rise
Forty-nine states have laws demanding state-wide inspection of septic tank systems, but Michigan is the lone exception, leaving the issue of private septic up to counties, townships, cities, and villages.
For example, it wasn’t until 2022 that Leelanau County adopted formal septic instruction rules for the whole county in a 5-2 vote by the County Board of Commissioners. (Those opposed cited concerns about “big government.”) Meanwhile, Benzie County, Leelanau’s neighbor, had implemented an ordinance requiring septic system inspections whenever a home is bought, sold, or transferred back in 1990.
This scattered, patchwork-approach and overall lack of regulation means Michigan homeowners must bear what amounts to significant infrastructure costs to maintain, pump, inspect, and replace their septic systems, all with zero assistance or enforcement from state environmental departments.
FLOW has published studies showing the harm to groundwater resulting from this disorderly approach. One study found at least 330 failing or failed septic systems in the state, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“Dr. Joan Rose from MSU sampled 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta,” says Kirkwood. “The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria were found in the water.”
In layperson’s terms, when rivers with several homes nearby were tested, they had much higher concentrations of human fecal matter than rivers with fewer homes nearby.
Because they’re underground, septic systems fall prey to the same out-of-sight, out-of-mind issues that hamper efforts to protect groundwater. And when there are no state-level regulations around how septic systems must be maintained and serviced, old systems get even older as homes change ownership or pass down from generation to generation, with no one paying attention to rising septic contamination risks.
“That spells bad news for our water supply,” says Kirkwood. “Our groundwater is hydrologically connected to our 11,000 lakes, thousands of miles of rivers, and our Great Lakes coastline. If the groundwater becomes contaminated, that has knock-on effects for all our water.”
Corporate Pollution Remains a Concern
If septic failures are a private issue, corporate pollution is a public issue. FLOW documented more than 24,000 groundwater contamination sites across Michigan, including 11,000 orphan sites, i.e., sites with no responsible party. These are sites where a corporation caused pollution many years ago, the corporation moved away or was dissolved, and the pollution remained. In those cases, taxpayers foot the bill for the cleanup.
While the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has provided comprehensive documentation on what sites exist and what must be done to decontaminate them, cleanup efforts are slow going.
To give us one example, Kirkwood pointed us to EGLE’s reporting on the Wickes Manufacturing Trichloroethylene (TCE) Plume in Antrim County, the largest contamination site of its kind in the United States.
“Mount Clemens Industries Inc., later known as Wickes Manufacturing, used TCE in vapor degreasers as part of the manufacturing of auto parts in Mancelona from 1947 to 1967,” wrote EGLE in its 2020 report. “Waste containing TCE was discarded on the ground and in lagoons, where it seeped through the soil and dissolved into the groundwater. Both companies went out of business many years ago. As a result, DEQ funds have been allocated to address the TCE contamination.”
Whether the land and groundwater are publicly or privately owned, the ability to test for and identify contamination problems in groundwater is the first step in keeping the Sixth Great Lake healthy. Kirkwood says organizations like FLOW, its partners, and state bodies like EGLE have shown what the risks are and what needs to be done to address them.
“Michigan has been trying to address this issue for 20+ years,” Kirkwood adds. “Now we know what the problems are, and there’s finally legislation on the books to balance the needs of homeowners and public health officials.”
Kirkwood highlighted several solutions FLOW and other agencies are supporting, including efforts individual Michiganders can support:
1. Private Septic. Homeowners should ensure their systems are inspected and serviced every three to five years, and the state should create new funding sources for replacement and state-wide inspections of Michigan’s 1.5 million private septic systems.
“There needs to be a funding source for inspection, enforcement, and replacement on private septic systems,” said Kirkwood. “For homeowners, the costs of replacing failed septic systems must be dealt with, and we hope upcoming legislation addresses that. Having leadership in Lansing sympathetic to environmental concerns is a big help.”
2. New Legislation. Speaking of legislation, Kirkwood advocates for representatives who pass legislation to fund pollution cleanups. (She points to legislative sessions in 1983, 1988, and 1998 that appropriated funds for legacy pollution cleanup.)
FLOW’s 2018 report on the status of Michigan’s groundwater argues for the necessity of government assistance to “clean up over 6,000 remaining sites with contaminated groundwater where no other viable party can be found to pay for cleanup.”
There’s also talk in Lansing that polluter pay laws may be on the horizon, legislation that would hold corporations accountable for any pollution they create, including groundwater contamination.
“When we look at this economically, what we’re seeing here is another unaccountable giveaway to irresponsible corporations,” says Sean McBrearty, legislative and policy director for Clean Water Action, a national organization supporting health and environmental protections. “What we need this [l]egislature to address is to bring back our polluter pay program to ensure that the responsible corporations, not taxpayers, are on the hook for cleaning up contaminated sites moving forward.”
3. Educating the Public. Getting the public informed is a huge part of the effort to protect groundwater resources. A 2016 study showed 30 percent of homeowners surveyed didn’t know they had a septic system, much less when it was last serviced. And education should be offered to youngsters, too, Kirkwood says.
“We’d like to see high school classes teaching kids about the risks to Michigan’s groundwater. The subject should be taught alongside other environmental science issues. That way, Michigan youths will grow up with a better understanding of their state’s critical natural resources.”
As we reach the end of our interview, Kirkwood puts the importance of groundwater education into perspective.
“It’s not like everybody has to be a scientist,” she says. “But having a basic understanding helps a lot, because your septic system affects the groundwater and the long-term wellbeing for you and your community. We are the Great Lakes State. Water defines us. But in order for us to continue being the Great Lakes State, we also have to be great stewards.”
Learn more about groundwater concerns and solutions at forloveofwater.org.