Flint River in Michigan | Image via Shutterstock Flint River in Michigan | Image via Shutterstock

Advocates say more residents are realizing “there are clear and present threats” to the state’s water.

A new report out this week shows just how little faith Michiganders have in the safety of their drinking water. It’s so bad, in fact, that one resident told researchers that whenever they travel outside of their community, they usually use bottled water. “I don’t know what’s coming out of that tap,” they said. “How can we have faith and trust when you’ve heard so many bad stories?” 

The report is the culmination of a months-long campaign to determine Michiganders’ priorities for managing the state’s waters. Researchers with the Center of Michigan, a nonprofit, nonpartisan thinktank, surveyed more than 3,100 people and held town halls across the state. 

According to their findings, only one-third of residents believe their local drinking water is “always safe,” while fewer than one in 10 believe that their statewide drinking water is “always safe.”

Town hall participants cited the Flint Water Crisis and PFAS contamination as the leading drivers of their concern about Michigan’s drinking water. Others pointed to the significant number of communities finding lead in their drinking water systems. 

“I think there is a growing awareness amongst residents that there are clear and present threats to our drinking water,” said Charlotte Jameson, the program director for legislative affairs, energy, and drinking water policy at the Michigan Environmental Council.

The report confirms that the public awareness is there, and so is a desire for action. 

Intensifying the fight against PFAS pollution

According to the Center of Michigan’s findings, more than 70% of Michiganders support increased state funding to deal with contamination of the state’s water supplies caused by PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals), a family of chemicals used in nonstick household products, such as Teflon, which have been found to increase the risk of cancer and infertility and affect children’s growth. 

Michigan has more PFAS contamination sites than any other state in the nation, and residents, according to the report, want the toxic, “forever chemical” out of their water. 

The state has already taken some action on the issue. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nesse (D)l recently filed a lawsuit against 3M, DuPont, and 15 other companies over their role in manufacturing and selling PFAS and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed an increase in the state’s spending on PFAS response. She has also requested federal assistance and faster military response to major PFAS contamination at an old Air Force base in Osco. 

But residents want to see more done, and not just at the state level. Nearly 78% of Michiganders believe the federal government should be doing more, and 87% want an enforceable federal PFAS limit. Currently, a health advisory from the Environmental Protection Agency recommends lifetime exposure limits to PFOS and PFOA from drinking water at 70 parts per trillion, but it is not enforceable. 

One participant quoted in the survey said Michigan “is not pushing very hard for federal action and I would love to see that state push harder for that.”

Michigan’s PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) has proposed its own contamination limits, which are below the EPA’s advisory level, but the report points out that there are questions about whether the state can legally enact that lower PFAS limit given the state’s “no stricter than federal” law. The law, passed in 2018 under former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, prevents environmental regulations from being stricter than the federal government’s unless the state shows a “clear and convincing” need due to “exceptional circumstances.”

Sixty-three percent of respondents said the state should repeal this law.

Stronger safeguards against lead in school drinking water

In the wake of the Flint Water Crisis, Michiganders are also concerned about increased lead levels in school water supplies. The state responded to Flint by passing the nation’s strongest-in-the-nation lead and copper rules, which restrict the amount of lead permissible in drinking water and requires water utilities to replace lead service lines statewide by 2040. 

While those new rules address most of the state’s drinking water supplies, Michiganders also want additional measures undertaken to address the presence of lead in school water supplies. Nearly six out of 10 respondents expressed support for a proposal that would implement mandatory routine testing of drinking water supplies in schools, while another 31.5% support replacing drinking fountains with filtered water stations. Only one in 10 Michiganders opposed the ideas. 

Michigan’s 2017 budget included nearly $4.3 million to reimburse schools (up to $950 per building) for lead testing or installing new fixtures, but less than 10% of those funds were used and the program was canceled the following year.

“Many districts did not apply for the funds, claiming the grant amount was insufficient to cover the full cost of testing and/or fixture replacement,” the report reads. 

More oversight of private wells and septic tanks

Researchers found that Michiganders also want better oversight of the state’s private wells and septic tanks, which are only regulated when they are first installed or when a property is sold. The state does not otherwise require regular maintenance or perform inspections of privately owned water infrastructure. 

This poses a unique problem in a state with more than one million wells—the most of any state in the nation—and where over a third of state residents and businesses rely on septic tanks. 

“Michigan is the only state in the nation that does not have a state-wide septic code and inspection process, which is incredibly problematic,” Jameson said. “We’ve got thousands of failing septic systems across the state.”

Leaking septic tanks can contaminate nearby surface water and wells with e. Coli, posing a threat to public environmental health.

A majority of poll respondents said the state should implement additional oversight of wells and septic tanks. “If you don’t make people maintain these systems, they won’t,” said one participant. “People will get sick. Increase regulations to keep everyone safe.” 

Infrastructure upgrades

Infrastructure has been a buzzword in Michigan in recent years, but that conversation has rarely focused on the state’s water infrastructure.

“Most of the infrastructure debate in Michigan has centered around our roads,” Jameson said. “A lot of the oxygen gets sucked out of the room when it comes to the funding for infrastructure. It makes it a little bit more difficult to come in and say ‘hey, our water infrastructure is in disrepair and we really need to focus over here too.’”

But Michigan’s residents do want to focus on the state’s water infrastructure, which received grades ranging from a C to D- from the American Society of Civil Engineers, depending on which part of the system was evaluated.

In 2016, the state’s Infrastructure Commission estimated it would cost about $1 billion more per year to fully maintain the state’s public water infrastructure. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said the state should make this investment to fully maintain the state’s water and sewer systems and protect drinking and surface water. 

The support is there, so why isn’t it happening?

Michiganders want to strengthen the state’s water quality protections, but there are two key roadblocks to regulating and upgrading the state’s water systems, according to Jameson.

The first is industry opposition.

“I think this is increasingly clear on the groundwater and drinking water contamination side. A lot of that is being driven by discharges of contaminants from industrial users and so there’s been a lot of leniency in that space,” Jameson said. “We need to really strengthen those protections and crack down in terms of enforcement on illegal discharges of contamination, but industry is obviously very politically powerful and is serving as a barrier to get that done.”

The second obstacle is funding. 

“There’s a lot of division and debate about how to raise that funding,” Jameson said. “There’s a lack of political will to increase taxes or to do some of the other things that eventually need to be done in order to get the funding necessary to maintain our water infrastructure adequately.”

One possible solution is to raise water system user fees, where residents would pay an additional fee on their monthly bills to fund the annual $1 billion in infrastructure updates. A slim majority (52.4%) of poll respondents said they supported raising water system user fees. 

“There is a cost of not doing things. There is an economic cost for brain damage from lead in water,” one participant said. “Pay now or pay later.” 

The consequences of not addressing Michigan’s water woes could also ripple out far beyond the state itself, another respondent pointed out. “Our standards for clean water must be the most advanced and stringent,” they said. “We are guardians of twenty percent of the world’s clean water.”