Their brains and bodies are still developing and are particularly sensitive to pollutants at certain developmental stages;
They breathe more rapidly than adults and therefore absorb more pollutants through the respiratory system;
They drink more water and eat more food per pound of body weight than adults;
Children are more likely to put their hands in their mouth;
A child’s body may not be able to break down and get rid of harmful contaminants that enter their body;
Health problems from an environmental exposure can take years to develop. Because they are young, children have more time to develop health conditions and diseases than adults who are exposed later in their life.
A profile of children’s environmental health inMichigan shows the state has higher rates of pediatric cancer, asthma, and ADD/ADHD than national averages.
Both the U.S. EPA and MichiganGovernor Gretchen Whitmer have recognized Children’s Environmental Health Day this year. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has announced arevised, more protective policy to safeguard children from pollution. In a statement accompanying the policy, Regan says, “EPA will protect children from environmental exposures by consistently and explicitly considering early life exposures and lifelong health in all human health decisions. The EPA is committed to protecting children where they live, learn, play and work by using human-health-related science, risk assessment, regulations, compliance and enforcement, partnerships, communications and research.”
To prevent health impacts to children from pollution, parents and guardians can get informed andtake direct action to guard their kids.
And all citizens can advocate for state and local policies that provide special protections for children — like Michigan’s drinking water standard for lead, thetoughest in the nation. At the direction of Governor Whitmer, Michigan has also enacted protective drinking water standards for PFAS compounds, the so-called “forever chemicals” that canaffect growth, learning, and behavior in infants and older children and compromise their immune systems, making some vaccines less effective.
Protecting children’s health from pollution is a necessity, not a luxury. Children’s Environmental Health Day is an opportunity to reflect on this duty, and to begin taking action to fulfill it.
In late September, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed into law a budget for state government that makes significant investments in environmental and energy programs. The funds will be spent in the state fiscal year that began October 1.
Drinking water, climate resiliency and contamination cleanup programs received the largest allocations. Here are the highlights.
Reducing Human Exposure to Toxic Lead
$10 million for an initial investment to begin the replacement of lead service lines in Benton Harbor to provide access to safe drinking water.
$10 million for the Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund to help eliminate lead poisoning in homes by injecting private capital into lead remediation efforts.
Cleaning Up Water Pollution and Protecting Drinking Water
$15 million for the Emergency Drinking Water Fund. The money will be used to replace lead service lines, provide alternate drinking water connections, support testing and public awareness and outreach, and pay for technical assistance and planning activities.
$25 million to clean up the Western Lake Erie Basin by reducing phosphorus levels.
$14 million to address PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals” that remain in the environment for long periods and threaten human health, and other emerging contaminants. Up to $5 million in grants will go to local units of government, including municipal airports and independent airport authorities for the remediation, monitoring, or testing related to PFAS, and up to $4.75 million will go to local health departments for PFAS response.
$20 million to clean up contaminated sites across the state.
Coping with Climate Change and Promoting Clean, Efficient Energy
$14.3 million to fund high water level and resilient infrastructure and planning grants to local governments for projects that address issues like coastal erosion, flooding, transportation networks, urban heat, and stormwater management.
$5 million for the State Facility Green Revolving Fund, which is a catalyst for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects at state facilities, helping reduce the state’s carbon footprint.
$5 million for a pilot program to promote pre-weatherization construction, renovation, and repair services required to make single and multi-family structures eligible for energy efficiency or weatherization programs.
The new budget also contains $19 million for dam repairs and replacements to mitigate flooding and hazards caused by dam malfunction.
The new budget also provides funds for a public health drinking water unit in the Department of Health and Human Services for enhanced efforts to monitor child blood lead levels. The department is also required to maintain a vapor intrusion response unit to assess risks to public health at vapor intrusion sites and respond to vapor intrusion risks where appropriate. At scores of sites across the state, chemical contaminants have penetrated the interior of buildings where people live and work, threatening their health.
Dr. Daniel Macfarlane, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability
By Daniel Macfarlane
As a Canadian living in Michigan, I’ve never seen a state or province that identifies with the Great Lakes the way Michigan does: their silhouette adorns t-shirts, water bottles, and bumper stickers everywhere. At the same time, I would say that the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence system is woven into the nationalisms and founding mythologies of the Canadian nation-state, especially in central Canada, in a way that isn’t true of the United States. You might even say that the Great Lakes are in the DNA of the territory now called Canada.
The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River are the historic Canadian heartland—the equivalent of the East Coast of the United States. All three founding nations of Canada (Indigenous, British, and French) crowded the shores of these sweetwater seas and the St. Lawrence River. Nowadays, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin hosts the political, financial, and industrial hubs of Canada, and about half the country’s population.
But if the Great Lakes are so important to Canadians, why do they seem to care so little about protecting them? Specifically, I’m talking about Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline.
Line 5, a hydrocarbon pipeline, runs through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, across the state’s venerated Straits of Mackinac, and then through lower Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario. Built nearly 70 years ago, and in a deteriorating condition, Line 5 daily transports about 23 million gallons of oil and natural gas liquids from the Canadian West.
Line 5 is a ticking time bomb, especially at the Straits, where Enbridge is proposing a tunnel for this decaying and dangerous dual pipeline—but if you read the fine print, it will take a decade to build and taxpayers will be on the hook for the risky endeavor.
If the Great Lakes are so important to Canadians, why do they seem to care so little about protecting them? Specifically, I’m talking about Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline.
In November 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer revoked the 1953 easement granted to the Lakehead Pipe Line, now Enbridge, for the Straits crossing. Enbridge ignored the Governor’s May 12 deadline to shut down Line 5, with backing from the Canadian government, and the matter was sent for mediation. But in early September, the State of Michigan moved to break off this “unproductive” dialogue.
The status quo is going to end in disaster. Canada is a climate villain, marching itself and the rest of the world to “global weirding.” Backing the likes of Enbridge is not only bad for the planet, it is bad economics.
In any case, the 1977 treaty is a diplomatic agreement not to interfere with or levy any fees or duties on hydrocarbons that are already flowing—“in transit” to use the treaty language—and should have no applicability on the bigger question of whether a state or province wants a foreign pipeline in their territory. In other words, the intention of this treaty was not to stop a state (or province) from exercising its sovereignty over its own public waters or deciding whether or not to revoke permission for a foreign pipeline crossing its territory; the point was to stop an arbitrary or gouging bait-and-switch where a political jurisdiction acting as the middle man gives consent to a pipeline and then jacks up the price.
Many Canadians have been boisterously loud about stopping new and existing pipelines within Canada. But why are Canadians so seemingly ignorant, or ambivalent, about Line 5? A major reason is certainly that most of the fossil fuels sent through Line 5 ends up in Ontario and Quebec. Of course, Canada is also a type of petro-state, addicted to the profits and efficiencies of fossil fuels; many have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Just imagine how Canadians would react if the situation were reversed, and the U.S. refused to stop a pipeline that a province didn’t want. Moreover, if Canada is serious about reconciliation, it needs to stop pipelines. Many pipelines in Canada threaten the territories of numerous bands and First Nations, often without their consent and in conflict with the spirit of treaties and agreements.
But the status quo is going to end in disaster. Canada is a climate villain, marching itself and the rest of the world to “global weirding.” Backing the likes of Enbridge is not only bad for the planet, it is bad economics.
A recent report stated that close to 85% of Canada’s fossil fuels need to stay in the ground if the country wants to have a decent chance of meeting the 1.5 degree Celsius goal in the Paris Agreement. According to another analysis, building the Line 5 tunnel and continuing the pipeline could contribute an additional 27 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere annually, generating $41 billion in climate damages between 2027 and 2070.
Those climate damages are going to haunt Canada as well as the U.S. Moreover, the models show that a Line 5 spill at the Straits of Mackinac would likely flow into the Canadian part of Lake Huron. Enbridge’s track record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. I live and teach in Kalamazoo, where in 2010 Enbridge’s Line 6B had a catastrophic failure into the eponymous river. A pipeline rupture would be all but impossible to rectify quickly in the Straits when there is ice cover in winter.
Just imagine how Canadians would react if the situation were reversed, and the U.S. refused to stop a pipeline that a province didn’t want. Moreover, if Canada is serious about reconciliation, it needs to stop pipelines. Many pipelines in Canada threaten the territories of numerous bands and First Nations, often without their consent and in conflict with the spirit of treaties and agreements.
There are alternatives for getting energy to the areas of Canada served by Line 5. These can be used in the short-term. But, make no mistake, the goal here is not to just shift fossil fuels to a different pipeline. The end game is an energy transition, and a just one at that. In the long run, stopping Line 5, and other pipelines, could actually be doing Canadians a favor: weaning them off of fossil fuels and their infrastructure, and protecting the Great Lakes and the climate. What could be more neighborly?
A true watershed moment: As FLOW in 2021 marks our first 10 years of groundbreaking work on behalf of public trust rights and responsibilities in the Great Lakes, we honor two of the most ardent champions of public water and most inspiring leaders in the Great Lakes watershed. To ignite FLOW’s next 10 years of forward thinking and momentum, as exemplified by Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey, FLOW and our community of local, regional, and international partners are recognizing, honoring, and ensuring the continuing influence of these two visionary leaders to protect public water in the Great Lakes Basin.
FLOW Founder & Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson
For nearly 50 years Jim Olson, FLOW’s founder and senior legal advisor, has been an ardent and effective environmental, water, and public interest law advocate and champion. He has developed a deep knowledge and understanding of public trust principles and law as they apply to the systemic threats facing the Great Lakes Basin. Jim is a graduate of Michigan State College of Law (Detroit College of Law) and has an L.L.M. Degree in public lands, natural resources, and environmental law from the University of Michigan Law School. He received the Champion of Justice Award in 2010, one of the highest honors of the Michigan Bar Association, and was named a Michigan Lawyer of the Year in 1998 for his work on environmental and water citizen suit laws. Jim has lectured in Brazil, Canada, and the United States, and has written numerous articles and essays and three books. He was featured in two eminent documentary films on water, “FLOW: For Love of Water” (2008) and “Blue Gold” (2008).
Watch FLOW’s video homage to Jim Olson below:
FLOW Senior Policy Advisor Dave Dempsey, with long-time friend and colleague Lana Pollack
FLOW senior advisor Dave Dempsey has 40 years’ experience in environmental policy. He served as environmental advisor to former Michigan Governor James Blanchard and as policy advisor on the staff of the International Joint Commission. He has also provided policy support to the Michigan Environmental Council and Clean Water Action. He has written dozens of books on the Great Lakes and water protection. Dave has a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in environmental policy and law from Michigan State University. He has served as an adjunct instructor in environmental policy at both universities.
Watch FLOW’s video homage to Dave Dempsey below:
Central to ensuring the ongoing impact of Jim’s and Dave’s achievements is the establishment of a special fund dedicated to securing the legacy of their leadership and the deepening influence of the public trust doctrine in environmental public policy. Gifts to the Olson-Dempsey Fund will support FLOW’s ongoing mission to educate about the power of public trust law, underscoring the rights and responsibilities of the public and public officials. By underwriting public presentations, communications initiatives, and engagement activities, the Fund will shine a light on the power of the public trust to inform law and science-based policy protecting the Great Lakes and will help to expand and sustain the application of the public trust doctrine as a key legal and policy instrument to protect the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.
FLOW publicly announced the Olson-Dempsey Fund on September 21, 2021, at our 10th anniversary celebration. Donors may add to the Fund through gifts and grants of all levels. Multi-year pledges and structured/planned gifts are welcome. Contact Diane Dupuis at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about giving, or visit our online donation portal to make a gift now.
FLOW and the residents of the Great Lakes Basin are forever indebted to the brilliance, dedication, and relentless efforts that Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey have made on behalf of public water, the public trust doctrine, and the well-being of future generations who will call the Great Lakes home.
This week is the inaugural Source Water Protection Week. Although the term “source water” is unfamiliar to many, the resource to which it refers is critical to the health of millions of Michigan residents.
“Source water” refers to the untreated source of public drinking water supplies. For most municipal supplies in Michigan, source water is drawn from the Great Lakes, including Grand Rapids and metropolitan Detroit, although a few communities have river or inland lake water sources. Several large communities, such as Lansing and Mt. Pleasant, use groundwater as source water and serve about 1.7 million Michigan residents. (For about 1.25 million Michigan households serving 2.6 million residents, private well water is the source of drinking water.)
Drinking water sources for all Michigan communities served by public supplies can be foundhere.
Contamination of source water, over decades, has affected scores of Michigan communities, often at great public or private expense for treatment and cleanup. For example, a chemical facility and railroad paint shop threatened the groundwater well field serving Battle Creek, and resulted in tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. It is far cheaper to prevent contamination by keeping polluting facilities and activities away from source waters.
Individuals can also help prevent contamination of drinking water sources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers ideas here.
FLOW Founder and Senior Legal Advisor Jim Olson submitted the following statement to the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority as part of a September 20, 2021, public meeting regarding Enbridge’s oil tunnel proposed through public bottomlands in the Straits of Mackinac and the Line 5 Easement, Assignment, Tunnel Agreement, and 99-year lease.
Dear Honorable Members of the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority:
Thank you for setting up the public information session today. The importance of the issues surrounding the decisions you face as members of the Authority cannot be overstated. This is particularly the case, because while the information regarding the details of construction, geotechnical, risk, health, environmental, and tribal and cultural issues remain crucial, the patently lack of authorization under the State’s public trust laws, statutes, and duties lays bare a fundamental question that must be answered and complied with before further investments of time, money, and resources by the State and Enbridge. In the absence of such authorizations for the tunnel easement, our assignment to Enbridge, the 99-year lease, and the purported right of continued occupancy under paragraph 4.2 of the Third Agreement, the continued movement forward continues to put the State and Enbridge, and the State’s citizens at risk.
FLOW and many organizations, appeared and testified before this Authority on Friday, March 6, 2020. At that time, FLOW submitted a legal analysis and comment, dated March 5, 2020, and on March 6, 2020 made an oral presentation to the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority (”MSCA” or “Authority”) that is part of the record in this matter. FLOW reiterated these comments in a statement to the Authority on February 3, 2021.
I realize that there are new members of the Authority, so, I have attached the above link to this analysis and incorporate the above comments and statements into the comments below. Without waiving the several points contained in FLOW’s analysis and comments, today, I want to underscore the fact and law that the DNR Easement, the Assignment from you to Enbridge, and the Tunnel Agreement provisions calling for a 99-year lease have not been authorized under the rule of law of the public trust doctrine:
These documents are subject to the GLSLA, 324.32502-32508 and rules, but to date the agreements and conveyance documents have not been authorized under the GLSLA;
The DNR Tunnel right of way or Easement purports to be authorized under Act 10, now MCL 324.2129, for a public utility easement. However, the DNR has never authorized it based on the required findings under the public trust doctrine, an absolute necessity based on the position of the State, AG Nessel, and DNR in the Ingham County cases: Nessel v Enbridge; and State Governor and DNR Director v Enbridge.
Until this authority is obtained by Enbridge, no contracts should be signed, no monies spent, and no construction commenced; to do so, would be at MSCA’s and Enbridge’s own risk. For this reason, you, the members of MSCA, are requested, respectfully, to ask for an Opinion of Attorney General Dana Nessel, on the serious question of the lack of required authorization of the 2018 Easement, the Assignment of Easement, and the Tunnel Agreement/99-Year Lease Agreement for occupancy and use of the State’s sovereign public trust bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes.
Thank you. Should you have any questions, or your AG staff have questions, we remain available to discuss the same.
Traverse City, Mich.—FLOW is celebrating our 10th anniversary of keeping the Great Lakes public and protected and kickstarting the next 10 years.
Founded in 2011 by Jim Olson and directed since 2012 by Liz Kirkwood, both environmental attorneys, FLOW is a nonprofit law and policy center based in Traverse City dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes, groundwater, and drinking water for all. Independent and nonpartisan, FLOW works with the public and decision-makers to hold the government accountable in protecting and providing access to public waters.
Notable highlights of our 10th anniversary year and celebration include:
Tuesday, September 21, from 7:00-8:00 pm EDT—“Confluence”—FLOW’s marquee 10th anniversary event, live-streamed and emceed by dynamic Traverse City talent Ben Whiting. Free and open to the public, the online event will include a special honor for FLOW luminaries Jim Olson and Dave Dempsey, and promises a fun and fast-paced frolic through FLOW’s history and heroes, with special guests, and prize-drawings for Patagonia gear! Register here.
The addition of FLOW’s first-ever full-time legal director, an achievement many years in the making. Environmental attorney Zach Welcker joined FLOW in July, after more than a decade representing Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest on water, fisheries, and other natural resource issues. Zach now carries the legal torch borne since 2011 on a part-time and volunteer basis by Jim Olson.
Video reflections by FLOW supporters, staff, and collaborators who have been instrumental to our work and shared successes over the past decade—meant to inspire everyone to join us in protecting freshwater for all. See the video series here.
Release of a penetrating groundwater-protectionreport—Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency—and fact sheet authored by Dave Dempsey and conveyed via webinar. See FLOW’s groundwater program page for more.
“There isn’t another FLOW. There are many worthy environmental organizations but there isn’t another FLOW,” said Lana Pollack, former U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission. “So I think that FLOW, although it’s not a political organization, it’s a deeply education organization. That has to come first before people will understand and demand of their government representatives protection for their most magnificent home.”
Watch Lana’s testimonial below.
For 10 years, FLOW has worked to keep our water public and protected. During 2021, our 10th anniversary year, FLOW staff, supporters and collaborators are sharing reflections on what our work together has meant to them, and to the freshwaters of the Great Lakes Basin. We hope you will find their words and deeds inspiring. Read more of those reflections here.
“It’s so simple, it’s so basic, and it’s often overlooked. It’s another long-term, generational educational effort that needs total place for people to understand that governments, at any period, at any place, hold the environmental entities of their regions in trust for all generations—not there to be given away, used up, sold, contaminated, forgotten about, taken for granted.”
Click here to see a larger version of the SepticSmart graphic.
By Dave Dempsey
Groundwater, a critical part of Michigan’s water cycle, is out of sight—and so is the groundwater pollution that contaminates thousands of drinking water wells and reaches hundreds of rivers and lakes across the state. Despite its invisibility to the naked eye, groundwater contamination sickens Michigan residents. About 45% of the Wolverine State’s population drinks well water.
Among the biggest culprits in degrading Michigan’s groundwater are failing septic systems. Designed to treat household wastewater in areas not served by sewers and buried beneath the land surface, septic systems require proper maintenance if they are to avoid polluting groundwater. Such maintenance includes regular inspections and, when necessary, pumping out of the wastewater. But because there are no inspection and maintenance requirements in most areas of the state, an estimated 130,000 septic systems in our state are failing. That means sewage and associated microorganisms are reaching groundwater, lakes, and streams.
September 20-24 is SepticSmart Week in Michigan and nationally—an opportunity for owners of property with septic systems to learn about the threat failing systems pose to our water resources, and ways to prevent or minimize such pollution. As our allies protecting Crystal Lake in Benzie County, Michigan, point out: Being septic smart can extend the life of a septic system, keep well water safe, protect the environment and prevent accidents at home.
FLOW’s Groundbreaking Reports on Groundwater
As FLOW described in our fall 2018 report on groundwater contamination in Michigan, and a second report we released earlier this year, our state is the only one of the 50 states that lacks a statewide sanitary code requiring regular inspection and maintenance of small, mainly domestic septic systems. Because of the gap in state protections, some counties, townships, cities, and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements, but they are relatively few out of Michigan’s approximately 2,000 local units of government.
Septic systems are small-scale wastewater treatment options, used when a home or complex cannot easily be connected to a municipal sewer system. Raw sewage and wastewater (e.g., bath water and dishwater) are first pumped from the home into the septic tank. This is an underground, sealed, concrete tank where the household waste is treated. Here, solid waste sinks to the bottom of the tank and materials such as oil form a layer of scum on top. Bacteria in the tank break down the solid waste, while the wastewater migrates out of the septic tank and into the drain field. Perforated pipes distribute the liquid wastewater throughout the drain field. Once out of the pipes, the wastewater effluent seeps through a gravel layer, then through the soil. Both filter the wastewater before it flows into the groundwater or nearby surface water.
Leaking or malfunctioning septic systems allow organic wastewater compounds like nitrate and E. coli to percolate through the soil and enter the groundwater. Leakage and effluent runoff are also major contributors to E. coli levels in surface water. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has identified 196 rivers, lakes, and beaches with E. coli levels over the EPA limit.
Between 2013 and 2014, an estimated 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage from failing septic systems were pumped into surface water in Michigan. A 2015 study headed by Dr. Joan Rose, co-director of Michigan State University’s Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment and Center for Water Sciences, 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. The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria were found in the water.
Failing septic systems have been correlated with disease. A 2003 study found that septic system densities were associated with endemic diarrheal illness in central Wisconsin.
Septic Systems and Emerging Contaminants
Human wastes are not the only pollutants that failing septic tanks are releasing to groundwater and surface water. So-called emerging contaminants are found in household wastes, whether they discharge to publicly owned sewage systems or septic tanks. Twenty different studies on septic systems have identified 45 contaminants in septic effluent, including pharmaceuticals, personal care product ingredients, chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, hormones (both natural and synthetic), and other common substances such as caffeine. Septic systems are somewhat effective at removing chemicals such as acetaminophen, caffeine, and alkylphenols, a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. But some chemicals remain largely untreated, including the carcinogenic flame retardant TCEP, an anti-epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole.
One cause of the septic system pollution problem is homeowners’ lack of awareness. A 2018 study of mid-Michigan residents likely to have septic systems, conducted by Public Sector Consultants, found:
Approximately 30 percent of residents did not know they have a septic system.
The average age of septic systems was 28 years old.
Forty-three percent of respondents indicated they had not had their system pumped within the last 5 years, and 25 percent indicated that they did not pump or maintain their system on a regular basis.
Only 15 percent of residents were aware of the normal lifespan of a septic system.
Only 11 of 83 Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time property is sold. Within the first 6 years of implementing their ordinances, two Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks and 300 homes without any septic system or other wastewater treatment.
Protect It and Inspect It: Homeowners should generally have their system inspected every three years by a qualified professional or according to their state or local health department’s recommendations. Tanks should be pumped when necessary, typically every three to five years.
Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain. These substances can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems.
Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water-efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks and install faucet aerators and water-efficient products. Spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day—too much water at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.
Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.
Pump your Tank: Routinely pumping your tank can prevent your septic system from premature failure, which can lead to groundwater contamination.
Test Your Drinking Water Well: If septic systems aren’t properly maintained, leaks can contaminate well water. Testing your drinking water well is the best way to ensure your well water is free from contaminants.
Source: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
Detroit artists Liz Ably. Photo by Krissy Booth used with permission.
Matt Harmon is FLOW’s Milliken intern for communications
By Matt Harmon
Liz Ahlbrand is a multimodal artist living in Detroit. She holds a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance. After an injury left her with severe chronic pain, she turned to the visual arts for new ways to cope and heal. Since then, she has been working as a freelance graphic designer and consultant, contributing her creative skills and personal artwork to numerous organizations and publications that focus on the intersecting issues of social justice, environmental sustainability, and the resiliency of the human spirit. She also regularly writes and performs music under the alias Liz Ably, and with her band, Deep Bloom.
FLOW Communications Intern Matt Harmon spoke recently by phone with Ably to discuss her artistic development, the role water plays in her work, and much more. Check out the transcript below:
Matt Harmon (MH):Can you describe to me your journey as an artist?
Liz Ably (LA): I have always been involved in the performing arts. That was mainly how I was involved in school and in community groups growing up, through middle school and high school, was in the performing arts. By that I mean mainly music, also theater and some dance, and I ended up going to college for music performance, which is a very different experience than a high school choral program or something. That was really interesting. I ended up studying jazz and opera, which are very different types of art forms.
It was a very rigorous schooling in college, which was quite the opposite of the experience I had in highly nurturing middle and high school programs that were very much about inclusivity and, as “woo woo” as this sounds, almost this spiritual nature of how music brings us together and transcends everything and in some moments can make you feel extremely connected and extremely alive, like alive in the best way, like thriving.
So anyways, I went into college for music because I wanted to continue with that, but as one often finds when you go into an institutionalized educational process, it’s not always about the lovey dovey stuff, so that was a bit of a rigorous experience for me in college, and afterwards, I was hoping to reconnect with that bigger, deeper sense of purpose that I always felt while making music, participating in music, listening to music, so I started working with a nonprofit setting with performing arts. So that job right out of college was the typical nonprofit experience where you’re working way more than is healthy for any human.
I really feel like everything is interconnected, so when I’m not a healthy person, I feel as though that has major ripple effects in my life, in my relationships, and in my community.
As I’ve learned since then, if you want to try to figure out the complicated, big issues of supporting communities through the arts or any method—but the arts have always been how I’ve encountered community—but if you want to support that process, that requires exceptional time and space, and the emergency mentality that this non-profit in particular had an issue with, went through a lot of burnout and made it, in my opinion at least, we weren’t really being very effective, so that was a little disheartening. I’ve backed all the way up to college and my first job out of college because that’s where this creative reawakening began for me, was at a very low point of ignoring my creative curiosities and involving myself in ways of living that were not healthy and were not very conscious, and I mean that in the broadest term possible because I really feel like everything is interconnected, so when I’m not a healthy person, I feel as though that has major ripple effects in my life, in my relationships, and in my community. How can I give in the ways I feel I’m called to give when there’s nothing in the well to give?
So that’s where this newfound sense of creativity began, was from a very scarce place of needing to get back in touch with my own sense of where do I derive connection to myself and to other people and to the planet and non-human beings as well. So that was kind of for the first time in my life where I started getting curious about the visual arts because, like I said, I’ve always been involved in the performing arts, not the visual arts, like painting and drawing and that kind of thing.
So that just started all as an experiment and purely led out of curiosity, which I think was the missing piece in a lot of those previous experiences with the non-profit and the music school, just a lack of individual curiosity about what could happen and allowing yourself to experiment with the risk of failure and acknowledging that failure is not a failure, in a sense, because you’re in that experimental mindset. So I started experimenting with drawing and with watercolors, the first media I started working with, which I was mainly drawn to because of the texture, the flowiness of it. You can definitely try with watercolors to really control that medium, but I have found that the most fun way to use watercolors is to let go of the sense of control and to let the water and the texture of the paper and the gravity to manipulate that medium and do some interesting things, and it ends up looking really natural, really reminiscent of rock formations and the topographical grooves you see in maps where glaciers have been, and all sorts of interesting things when you start getting curious and opening your eyes up to different ways to using watercolors besides just trying to control it.
MH:I feel like that maps onto how we control water as a natural resource. We assume when we control it, we’re going to get the best outcome, but when we actually let water do what water does, instead of trying to have this power over it, it’s ultimately going to be better for everyone.
LA: I totally agree. I’m thinking now of an author I really love, adrienne maree brown, and in one of her books I read recently, Emergency Strategy, she said something off the bat, and I’m just paraphrasing because I don’t remember exactly, but she was talking about how the natural world can support any kind of mindset, and people have chosen and supported the mindset for so long of “man vs nature” or “Oh, we’ll get nature full of all these hierarchies” and “dog eat dog.”
I totally agree with what you were saying before that we, in a lot of ways, in order to protect our world and ourselves, it’s more about unlearning than it is about learning. As much as technology is amazing, etcetera, etcetera, the world has already been doing its thing pretty well until we tried to overly control a lot of this stuff, so I think there’s a balance to be struck. It’s not a total unlearning, you know? It’s having some hindsight and understanding the interconnectedness of everything and how we are not the masters of this world, we’re just a part of this.
You can definitely try with watercolors to really control that medium, but I have found that the most fun way to use watercolors is to let go of the sense of control and to let the water and the texture of the paper and the gravity to manipulate that medium
MH:Was there a formative experience for you with water that inspires you as an artist?
LA: I’m trying to think of a good one. A lot of it goes back to memories I have of growing up in Michigan, because I’m from Michigan and our family was all about experiencing the Great Lakes, and the little lakes, and everything in between. Big, big into traveling all throughout Michigan. I guess something that I was thinking of earlier when I shared one of those other paintings with you, was of the stones, because I have so many memories of walking along the local parks, the state parks along the water’s edge, usually Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, and collecting these rocks because water, when it washes over these rocks, it makes the colors pop in an amazing way—sometimes these incredible patterns pop out that you wouldn’t even notice when the rocks are dry. So the best way to experience those rocks is to drench them in water. To me, it speaks to how water is life. Water brings everything to life. Even these inanimate objects, these rocks look so much more alive, and have character, and want to tell a story about the history of our world once they’re drenched in water and have that life brought back into them.
MH: While we’re on the subject of that piece, I’m interested in where those rocks are from?
LA: They’re from everywhere. I mean, they’re all, I think they’re almost all from Michigan. I’m pretty sure those are all Michigan rocks. There’s obviously some Petoskey stones in there, and most of those had just been picked up along the beaches in Michigan.
MH: Beautiful. I just love looking at the intricacies, especially when you say water brings them out, and if we take them away from the natural environment, take them away from the water, it’s not the same experience.
LA: Yeah, exactly. My dad has a geology degree, so he would know when we were picking up the rocks on the beach, like, “Oh, that’s magnesium” or whatever. He would tell a story about why the different kinds of elements showed up in the rocks and different ways, with the stripes or with polka dotty looks. I love thinking about the diversity that we can see too under the water of all these different elements. So interesting.
And any good work that is done to protect water is also protecting human lives and non-human lives, our economy and everything, absolutely everything. So that’s why, because it affects everything.
MH:I think that goes beautifully into my next question, which is thinking about how your dad is telling a story about the rocks, but you’re painting the rocks, and there are different ways to use different media to talk about the same thing. So I’m interested in the ways water informs your art as a musician?
LA: That’s a cool question. I love that. It’s something you wouldn’t think about too, because with paint, there’s obviously some kind of flow in that medium, and even more so, obviously, with watercolor—but with music, I do think it is about the story that you’re telling. And I wrote a song a few months ago that I’d probably never share with anyone, but it was about the story of explaining to myself how writing a song, even if the song isn’t a protest song, even if it’s not, “Obviously this is about demanding justice,” how can a song, that’s just a song, still tell a story, and still be important in the work of justice on all levels?
Because I really feel like, you know, environmental justice is intricately connected to social justice, economic justice, all of that is connected. For me, I think that’s one of the media that is more about connecting to my inner self and accepting that even when I am not using the medium of music to write a song for an organization to use at a protest or something, it’s still a valid way to reconnect to myself, and therefore, a valid way to reconnect to the world that I belong to—because we exist inside so much context, and it really takes a great deal of sorting through and exploring in all different kinds of ways, through all different media, whether that’s artistic media or social media.
MH:My next question is on your piece “water” which was featured in the Clearline Zine. This piece is so striking, and I want to know: What are you trying to get across with its content and its title?
LA: There was a lot that went into thinking about creating that. One of the things is, it’s a figure where her face or hairdo suggest a Motown sort of vibe. So I did create it to represent the Detroit area where I’ve been living for the past six or seven years now. She’s drowning, it looks like, in water, but it’s also, you know, connected to her own tears. And to me, this is about a lot of things, including Detroit’s obvious, terrible pollution problem and how that affects the people of Detroit, in multiple ways. Obviously we’ve got, you know, the effect of the groundwater and the drinking water, which is significant, but also how that gets ingested in other ways through the rain and through the urban farms and the food that people are trying to grow.
Because I really feel like, you know, environmental justice is intricately connected to social justice, economic justice, all of that is connected.
Also what has to be noted too is the interesting irony of Detroit having this big problem with the cost of water, right? And it has a lot of water cutoffs, but even all the efforts that are sometimes put in place, not as effectively as they should be to stop the cutoffs, it still doesn’t address the actual safety of the water.
And there’s just so much pollution, and it obviously disproportionately affects people of color, communities of color. So when you look at the maps, there’s one that the Environmental Justice Program at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability drew, and you look up: Where is the water most polluted, where is the land most polluted? Upriver is cleaner, but it’s also whiter. Downriver, you can obviously see the effects of redlining still in where that pollution is happening and affecting people the most.
To me, it was a lot about the water cutoffs. It was a lot about the actual pollution once you even have access to water. And also honestly, a lot of impact of the floods too. I had a lot of friends and family whose houses were severely flooded during the past couple of years, which is, you know, because there’s only so much that can be, I think, blamed on infrastructure, which definitely needs to be helped. But I think that the price of climate change is also showing up in those severe floods that are completely ripping apart people’s homes right now in Detroit.
MH:Yeah. There’s so many issues that are frankly started by government neglect. But it takes such an individual toll on people. We could chalk it up to water pollution or air pollution, leave it as these big issues. Or we could really look at individual cases of people that are impacted by these issues.
LA: Yeah, totally. It seems like in Detroit, especially there are a lot of individual people and organizations and movements who are fighting back and trying to hold people accountable and make change happen. I really feel like art has a really important place in fighting for justice. And they always have, you know, so it’s really important to me to combine those things.
MH: I want to jump to the third piece where we’re looking at human forms amid color, another watercolor piece. I am just curious as to what the relationship is between humans and water that you’re hinting at with this piece.
LA: So this piece was created in June 2020, and I started by using the technique, which allows the water and the gravity and the texture of the page to act more as the painter than the actual person and the paintbrush, you know? So again, letting go of trying to control the situation. That’s how the color got on there. That’s how the different shapes got on there. And once it all dried, again kind of like the stones, with watercolor it looks different when it dries than when it’s wet, which is really interesting. So once it dried, there were sort of these ridges that reminded me of landscape, but also of faces and profiles and eyes and lips. So I just started tracing what I saw. I think it kind of turned into, not consciously, but unconsciously, became a commentary on the paradox of the moment of having faces be masked and not fully being able to see each other’s faces or be there for each other in the complete way because of a pandemic. And yet, also how so many people were unmasking to release their voice to demand justice in regards to so many different issues.
I really feel like art has a really important place in fighting for justice. And they always have, you know, so it’s really important to me to combine those things.
I feel like there’s something extremely soothing and revitalizing about water that you just can’t deny. It’s powerful, and yet, also renewing at the same time. I think that’s the reason why I felt called to use watercolor more than any other medium. Because I didn’t use acrylics, and just pen and gouache, and stuff like that. The interesting dual properties of water, I think, are what we really need right now. Collectively it’s all these droplets of water, extremely powerful, yet extremely life bringing.
MH:Why do you think we should be protecting water in the Great Lakes?
LA: I think it just goes back to understanding how interconnected everything is. We cannot not preserve our water sources. You can’t even approach it just from one viewpoint, like, “Oh, we’ve got to preserve it because we’re Michigan, and this is how we bring tourists.” You can’t just approach it in one way. There’s so many things we have to protect because it’s all interconnected, and any good work that is done to protect water is also protecting human lives and non-human lives, our economy and everything, absolutely everything. So that’s why, because it affects everything.