Author: FLOW Editor

The Story of “When Water Moves”

Editor’s note: This article served as a preview for FLOW’s live-streamed premier of the film “When Water Moves” on Sunday, September 12, at 5:00 p.m. EDT. Photo by Tyler Franz.

By Anne-Marie Oomen

Ari Mokdad (left) and Anne-Marie Oomen (right) read from Seiche Ways aboard the Nauti-Cat in 2018.

It begins for me with the question that haunts my days: How can I use my art, my words, my one small gift which brings me joy, to make a difference in those causes I consider most critical to supporting eco-vigor? In recent years, that attempt to “make a difference” has been focused on water. Thank goodness for FLOW, because through their Art Meets Water program, that impulse found a home. Their program seeks to connect their mission with artistic resources to “develop this natural creative synergy into an intentional and inspiring outreach platform that motivates action and change.” In other words, they welcome and support interaction with artists who are thinking about water.

In 2018, FLOW had graciously supported the book launch of The Lake Michigan Mermaid: A Tale in Poems (written with Linda Nemec Foster, illustrated by Meridith Ridl). Then too through the publication (with Ari Mokdad) of a pocket anthology, Seiche Ways, a gentle fundraiser in which Ari and I collected water poems from our regional poets as a gratitude gift for FLOW donors. Ari is a poet, dancer and choreographer. She also happens to be married to the captain of the Nauti-Cat, and though her roots are in Detroit, she had also enthusiastically fallen in love with these more northern waters. I enjoyed our interaction immensely, and in August of 2019, one of her beautifully choreographed dances, “Water Studies” was accepted in the Detroit Dance City Festival, incorporating my poem “Water Gratitude” into the work. Inspired by the pleasure of those collaborations, we looked at each other and asked, “What’s next?”

With FLOW, we began to build a program for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, in March 2020, to address the ongoing water crisis in the state. We hoped to celebrate and heighten the water spirit permeating the work of water activists, including the water protectors of the tribal communities. We planned a multi-dimensional project that would include dance, poetry, community, and water. All was canceled due to COVID-19. For a while we floundered, but then like so many artists, we became inspired by the “creative synergy” of the challenge and  refocused the grant on video presentation—motivated by a more precise question: How could we communicate both the aesthetic and spiritual narrative of our beloved lakes, and simultaneously heighten the sense of urgency for water issues?

We extended the original concept of “When Water Moves,” to a dance/text/image/performance video centered on an original water parable that incorporates water issues. In the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) grant application, we wrote: “As Michigan-born artists with deep ties to water culturally, our work coalesces around both the movement of water, represented through traditional Anishinaabe dance and new contemporary choreography, and through text (poetry and storytelling) that uses water themes. We believe that water activism can successfully build from arts-based collaborations centered on the Great Lakes and current water issues.” We also hoped that this water-art collaboration might initiate deeper thinking about how we belong to the lakes instead of the other way around. We hoped that the aesthetics of story, of poetry and dance, and the imagery of video might move viewers to think about a more comprehensive and heartfelt water protection and preservation ethic.  

“When Water Moves” evolved as a video performance poem about a water woman who becomes a lake being, embodying in spirit the love of water and assuring its longevity. The story also describes how a water woman faces what happens when we fail to respect this ultimately life-giving resource. I had the pleasure of writing and narrating the poem, but the real pleasures were the contributing voices from the Northern Michigan and greater community. The story is inspired by both Sierra Clark’s Anishinaabe stories and tales from Ari Mokdad’s Lebanese heritage. Joe VanderMeulen stepped in to bring it all together—videotaping Ari’s lovely choreography, incorporating the voices of water protectors and the Anishinaabe jingle dress dance for healing.

Thanks to Joe’s skilled work, friends who view the short film will have the pleasure of watching a narration that holds both threads: aesthetically beautiful rendering of the concept and reflections on water work. The video offers hope for healing the relationships of humans to water. And also, just perhaps, offers a model for how artistic collaboration can build water consciousness, both for the artists and for the audiences who participate in open follow-up discussions. 

In addition, Ari and I are grateful that MCAC and the Northwest Michigan Arts and Culture Network were comfortable awarding support for this project to a grant-seeker (FLOW) that is not categorized as an arts organization. FLOW’s history of meaningful relationships with artists gave the project a solid track-record to stand on. To that end, Ari and I wrote the following with heartfelt conviction, “As artists we strive to foster conversations… and shift our perspective towards a culture that values, honors, and celebrates water and water equity. This conversation and development of art provides a starting point to create a healthier water culture and a more joyful participation in water consciousness and preservation. That said, we do this work because we share an ethos with FLOW as artists to preserve our greatest resource in Michigan and continue to advocate for sustainable changes for water equity and justice. This work is integral to our beings as water is a part of what makes our culture and very psyches whole.”

Coordinated Cross-Border Protests Call on Canada to Support Line 5 Shutdown

More than 40 protestors assembled on the Detroit Riverwalk Wednesday morning to call on the Canadian government to support Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in seeking to decommission the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac. The Detroit protest—staged near the Canadian consulate—occurred in solidarity with simultaneous demonstrations across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, as well as in Chicago and Milwaukee. At each protest site, organizers sent Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau jars of fresh Great Lakes water as a symbol of what’s at risk if Line 5 continues to operate.

Speakers at the Detroit protest included Sean McBrearty from the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, Christy McGillivray from Sierra Club, Jamie Simmons from Michigan Climate Action Network, and Andrea Pierce from the Michigan Democratic Party’s Anishinaabek Caucus and Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

“Michigan and independent researchers have studied this intensively and shutting down the Line 5 pipeline without replacing it is feasible. It’s the only way to truly protect our Great Lakes and it’s the only way forward at this point in the climate crisis,” Simmons said.

Maude Barlow Reflects: ‘The Goal of Our Movement Is Clean, Safe, Public Water for Everyone’

“The goal of our movement is clean, safe, public water for everyone. Water is a human right. Water is a public trust. Water is a public service. It mustn’t be put on the open market like oil and gas or running shoes,” said Maude Barlow—a Canadian author and activist and board chair of Food & Water Watch—in this testimonial about the impact we’ve had during the past decade. 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.

Watch Maude Barlow’s FLOW testimonial below.

“FLOW has stayed so clearly focused on the right issues, with the right language and the right values. FLOW has the answers. They’re also lovely people. They people at FLOW are professional, but they’re always nice. They’re kind. They don’t take credit. They give credit to others. They play nice with others. They want to work in networks and teams. They know that we can do better when we work together. I would say that FLOW has an impact and punches way higher than its weight.”

“Without FLOW the Line 5 issue would not be alive in Canada. With the help of Liz’s leadership we have been able to put together a coalition here in Canada to start speaking up and start saying ‘It is a pipeline, for heaven sake. We’re against all the other pipelines, why are we being so quiet on this one?’ And this one is triply dangerous because it goes under a portion of the Great Lakes.”

“We’ve been blessed, as Canada and the United States have, with an abundance of clean water, which we’re destroying as fast as we possibly can. We have a responsibility to care for it, because this is a planet running out of clean, accessible water. We’d better take care of it.”

“I started to realize that the water is dividing into people who have access to all the water they don’t even need but want, and those who don’t. The more I did on this issue of water, the more I realized that it’s very much a women’s issue in the global south. Women who walk kilometers or miles every day. They take their girl children out of school.”

A New Look at Protecting Michigan’s Submerged Great Lakes Lands

This underwater map of Lake Huron shows a ridge that was once above water where scientists have found evidence of caribou hunting blinds used by indigenous peoples thousands of years ago when lake levels were much lower.

 

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey and Alex Theophilus

Protection of the submerged lands of the Great Lakes that lie within Michigan’s jurisdiction is part of the state’s public trust duties. This represents a vast area, approximately 38,500 square miles of bottomland beneath four of the Great Lakes. By contrast, the size of the entire state of Indiana is 36,400 square miles.

While the common law public trust doctrine governs the general duties of the state with respect to its ownership and control responsibilities over Great Lakes submerged lands, the Michigan Legislature in 1982 enacted a statute authorizing the Department of Natural Resources to establish by rule bottomland preserves “whenever a submerged lands area

Alex Theophilus is FLOW’s former policy intern

includes a single watercraft of significant historical value, includes 2 or more abandoned watercraft, or contains other features of archaeological, historical, recreational, geological, or environmental significance.” In practice, the state has created bottomland preserves only for shipwreck conservation. Michigan currently has 13 such preserves spanning 7,200 square miles of Great Lakes bottomland.

Although protection of this portion of the public domain has been reserved almost exclusively for shipwreck sites, the Department of Natural Resources notes thatthe State, as the owner and trustee, has a perpetual responsibility to the public to manage these submerged lands and waters for the prevention of pollution, for the protection of the natural resources and to maintain the public’s rights of hunting, fishing, navigation, commerce, etc.” Invoking statutory protections to protect significant cultural, environmental, and scientific submerged land locations would provide conservation insurance for future access by the state to what amounts to the region’s most expansive public trust parkland. 

The opportunity for the State of Michigan to take the first step towards appropriate bottomland preservation and provisions may be following through on the requests of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians for the Straits of Mackinac to be declared Traditional Cultural Property in light of the discovery of items of potential archaeological significance. The recognition of the cultural heritage and scientific needs for environmental protection incorporated in the Straits should be made before any further development or exploitation of publicly owned property at the Straits occurs.

Additional protection considerations may be made for cultural resources of potential scientific significance, such as archeological sites in Grand Traverse Bay and on the Alpena-Amberley Land Bridge. Exclusively recognizing shipwreck sites rather than other submerged lands that would benefit from protection, research, and exploration falls short of protecting other critically important historical or other resources of important cultural and natural resources values.

In addition to potential archaeological sites, Great Lakes submerged lands contain environmentally and geologically significant features including a drowned waterfall, remnants of ancient forests, sinkholes and, potentially, fish spawning habitat.

Additional national marine sanctuaries could also provide a framework within which protection of Michigan submerged lands could be expanded. A proposition was made in 2015 to establish a National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Michigan off of the Wisconsin coast, and other proposals in Great Lakes states may advance under the Biden Administration, but these are again based primarily on shipwreck sites. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary within Michigan’s Lake Huron waters enjoys broad public and bipartisan support, but its focus is on the approximately 100 shipwrecks within the Sanctuary. In recent years, the Sanctuary has stepped up its environmental education efforts.

Inventorying and conserving potentially significant resources on Michigan’s Great Lakes submerged lands, in addition to shipwrecks, would make the state a national example of wise stewardship.

Giving Thanks for the Cleanup Folks

Photo: Kim Ethridge at the former Oil Site petroleum storage and distributor in Royal Oak removing contamination in soil and groundwater, November 19, 2020. Photo courtesy of EGLE

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

 

By Dave Dempsey

A private company that tidies up after domestic disasters (home fires, floods and more) has been all over television recently with ads that boast their work is so good that when they’re done, the property will look “like it never even happened.”

In Michigan’s state government there are talented professionals who would like to be able to say the same about the messes they try to clean upthe estimated 24,000 known contamination sites that degrade the state’s groundwater, soils, rivers, and lakes and even threaten people in their own homes. Working in what’s called the “Remediation and Redevelopment Division” of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), they work to pinpoint contamination sources, calculate health and environmental risks, work with (or in conflict with) polluters to resolve issues, and oversee the difficult work of removing toxins from the environment.

But unlike the company buying all those TV ads, the Remediation and Redevelopment Division (RRD) folks often must rely on taxpayer dollars to get the job done. There are many more contaminated sites than there is public funding to clean them up. And there are state laws and rules that sometimes require the cleanup folks to leave the contamination where it is, and simply prevent people from coming in contact with it through drinking water or other physical exposure.

This is undoubtedly frustrating for many of them, yet they persist, doing sometimes thankless work that still results in a tangibly cleaner environment.

RRD’s vision statement is the result of 26-year-old state policies that abandon the goal of full cleanup in favor of the notion that toxins can remain in place as long as people do not come in contact with them.

I had the opportunity to speak to many of those employees via a virtual in-service training on August 16. While I gave them some of the history that led to the need for their program, I also learned a few things about the challenges they face.

RRD’s vision statement is: “Create a future where Michigan’s contaminated properties are reliably managed, revitalized, and the environment is protected.” While laudable, it also illuminates one of the program’s constraints: instead of envisioning that contaminated properties are cleaned up, it talks of making sure they are “reliably managed.” In part, that is a reflection of limited public dollars to deal with the overwhelming number of sites. But it is also the result of 26-year-old state policies that abandon the goal of full cleanup in favor of the notion that toxins can remain in place as long as people do not come in contact with them.

In spite of that policy, RRD employees make critical contributions to Michigan’s economy as well as public health. They oversee the removal or control of contaminants on sites that can sometimes be returned to vibrant use, such as waterfronts in Detroit and Traverse City. And in thousands of places, they have kept people from drinking or otherwise physically contacting hazardous chemicals.

We’ve come a long way as a state since the earliest contamination occurred at the close of the 19th century—a way that is both good and bad. Industrial carelessness with chemicals like TCE, DDT, PCBs, and many more has lessened, due to both better stewardship and strict laws. And the state cleanup program that began more than 40 years ago and is now headed by RRD has addressed thousands of sites.

“Our mission has an importance that rises above the usual frantic business of society. It has an almost spiritual nature to it. Who else will respond to the trauma inflicted upon earth and its inhabitants?”

But there are still open sores on the land, and beneath it. When groundwater is tainted, it often puts those who rely on it at risk, and 45% of Michigan’s population gets its drinking water from private or public wells. When pollutants beneath residential or commercial structures vaporize, they can pose acute health risks to those who live or work there. Protecting Michigan’s people and environment from these threats is a vital public service.

To prepare for my presentation, I asked Andy Hogarth, the retired head of RRD, to articulate his version of the program’s purpose. He offered powerful words: “Our mission has an importance that rises above the usual frantic business of society. It has an almost spiritual nature to it. Who else will respond to the trauma inflicted upon earth and its inhabitants?”

Andy’s words should remind us that the cleanup folks in RRD, and indeed most of the staff of EGLE, are not stereotypical bureaucrats. They care about remedying the mistakes of the past, and leaving us all with a better future. They do so under enormous constraints of political pressure, restrictive state law and policy, limited funding, and ever-evolving science. All the people of Michigan owe them thanks.

Liz Kirkwood Reflects: FLOW is Dynamic, Innovative, Creative, Resilient, and Nimble

Photo: Liz Kirkwood on her first day as FLOW’s Executive Director in 2012.

“I’ve spent my whole life surrounded by water, with the exception of spending time in the desert. Living on the desert floor in Tucson, like 25-35 square miles, this urban sprawl is happening, and there’s no requirement for people to demonstrate that they have access to water.”

“I thought to myself, ‘How is this sustainable?’ It drove me to focus on water law,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood in a video testimonial [watch it below] about the impact we’ve had during the past decade. 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.

“The memories that I’m very fond of all relate to spending time with family on the eastern shore of Maryland in a tributary river called the Sassafras River. My mother and I would often canoe up these inlets to the Sassafras River, and we would see blue herons or eagles come out of these little coves. I recently went back there, and there has been a renaissance of the birds since my childhood. It is really spectacular to see that.”

“FLOW empowers communities and leaders to protect the Great Lakes. We apply public trust principles to advance policy to educate, and to provide solutions to the pressing water, energy, and climate issues facing our region, our nation, and our planet. We’re working together with you to shut down Line 5, to protect groundwater, to stop water diversions from the Great Lakes Basin, and to guarantee access to clean water for all. Please stand with us in the next 10 years as FLOW works to keep our water public and protected. FLOW is dynamic, innovative, creative, resilient, small, mighty and nimble.”

“The Accidental Reef”–A Look at the Great Lakes from the (River) Bottom Up

Author Lynne Heasley and Artist Glenn Wolff Featured in Virtual Book Launch as Part of FLOW’s Art Meets Water Series on August 25 from 5:30-6:30 pm

Lynne Heasley’s new book, The Accidental Reef and Other Ecological Odysseys in the Great Lakes, is hot off the press. Hailed as “extraordinary,” “immersive,” and “one of the best Great Lakes books of our era,” Heasley’s book is complemented by the vivid, evocative art of Glenn Wolff, who illustrates the book. To learn more and register for the event, click here.

Lynne Heasley is professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. We interviewed her recently about her new book.

FLOW: What’s the story your book tells?

Heasley: The Accidental Reef begins at a nondescript pile of rocks on the St. Clair River bottom. The St. Clair River is part of the Huron-Erie waterway. From there, fish and humans converge, transform each other, and take arduous, but sometimes wondrous, journeys toward their uncertain fates in the Great Lakes and beyond. The book narrates these multiple journeys and perspectives. One of the human journeys involves the discovery of this marvelous pile of rocks, and its more-than-human world below. Other journeys are darker, toward reckoning with the full scale of industrial assault on the Great Lakes and its peoples over two centuries. And a third set of journeys is toward deeper knowledge, wonder, compassion—new ways of knowing and relating that allow us to care for the Great Lakes and each other with more humility, responsibility, reciprocity.

Most people who live close to the lakes come to know them from the ground (or water) up; they learn one small special place at a time, personally, through direct experience. That layering of experience through space and time is the inspiration for the book’s flow: Begin hyper-local, then build upward toward the satellite views. Because NASA-level satellite imagery is no starting point for knowing and protecting the largest system of surface freshwater on Earth!

FLOW: What’s the significance of the title?

Heasley: The “accidental reef” was an accident of industrial history, as a steamship off-loaded coal waste in the same location of the St. Clair River at the turn of the 20th century. That pile of coal clinkers became an unknown spawning site for lake sturgeon, which were suffering near-extinction from habitat destruction and industrial-scale overfishing. The same U.S.-Canadian area of waterway (St. Clair River, river delta, Lake St. Clair) was where zebra mussels first established themselves in the Great Lakes. And so begin our many entwined ecological odysseys.

FLOW: How does Glenn Wolff’s art fit into your themes?

Heasley: Visualization, imagination, ways of knowing, relationship building, are so critical to caring for and protecting places like the St. Clair River, or the Great Lakes writ large. Glenn is a brilliant artist whose mind “sees” in ways the rest of us don’t. He could take 20 pages of my so-called prose, and retell the whole story in a single beautiful full-page illustration that people want to ponder.

In terms of the book’s themes: One of my harsher arguments is that Western science alone hasn’t worked to protect the Great Lakes, biodiversity, climate—all of the looming disasters we’re working on regionally and globally. New ways forward urgently demand other ways of seeing and knowing. Making artists and the arts “full partners” is essential. So in my opinion, this would have been a much poorer book without a strong visual artistic partnership.

Other themes involving Glenn are “community,” “relationships,” and “reciprocity.” One of the remarkable, but less remarked on, dimensions of Glenn’s work is his valued place in Traverse City and conservation communities. Community is a thread in the book, and I feel like Glenn’s art exemplifies an expansive concept of community. His art places us humans—respectfully and reverentially—within our more-than-human world.

Finally, there’s the professional generosity of Glenn and Jerry Dennis. Those two friends have an incredible partnership that goes back decades. Their collaborative books take a lot of time, especially when you add Glenn’s Northwestern Michigan College faculty position and teaching to the mix of demands. Making room (over a few years!) for a different project like this was magnanimous, and another example of community.

FLOW: What’s the most surprising thing you learned in your research about the St. Clair River?

Heasley: Oh goodness, where to begin?  In the area of amazement: What it’s like to see a river system through Greg Lashbrook’s eyes and senses over his decades of diving.  That while spawning a male lake sturgeon ejaculates after four seconds. The evolutionary biology of zebra mussels. That rain barrels in Colorado backyards were recently an illegal taking of someone else’s usufruct right to Colorado River water.

But more problematically: The horrendous magnitude of Great Lakes “resource” extraction in the past 200 years. (Cumulatively far beyond what even I as an environmental historian already knew and taught). 

And for problem solving: The leadership and innovation of Great Lakes First Nations and Tribes in today’s Great Lakes conservation.

The most complex ecological and eco-cultural stories were engrossing to me personally. But I have a feeling many readers will be drawn to the chapters with diver/conservationists Greg and Kathy, and the magnificent lake sturgeon they collaborate with.

FLOW: You have a reputation as an environmental historian. Where does this book fit into that discipline? Did any environmental history books inspire this one?

Heasley: I am an environmental historian and geographer by training and sensibility. I can’t approach a place, an environmental problem, or eco-cultural relationships, without asking “why?” and “how?” I also love making sense of complexity (which is a compulsion historians, geographers, and scientists all share!). There are a couple of chapters and a few sections or passages that any historian would recognize as historical framing. For instance, my play on the words in science articles describing zebra mussel impacts. Or my chapters with Dan Macfarlane in Part III of the book.

That said, I would place the book differently: it’s a hybrid of creative nonfiction, natural history, nature writing, and environmental humanities. I want lake sturgeon, or the physical experiences of scuba diver Greg Lashbrook, to come to life. This means removing myself as some kind of central all-knowing authority explaining things, and instead centering them and their worlds. So in The Accidental Reef, I played with imagery, rhythm, build-up, emotionality, fragmentation, morality, along with historical narrative. The sections and chapters still build on each other, but the particular style of a chapter depends entirely on its own story.

My literary inspirations come from many directions. I’m an evangelist for Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks and Underland. A long time ago, I wrote an article with Jim Feldman arguing that we need a growing body of Great Lakes writings akin to the near-endless literature on the American West (or the endless references to Walden Pond). I think that’s happening. We now have formative books from Jerry Dennis, Peter Annin, Dan Eagan, and you, Dave. William Cronon, Nancy Langston, and Daniel Macfarlane’s environmental histories are amazing—e.g., Bill’s Nature’s Metropolis, Nancy’s Toxic Bodies; and Dan’s books on the St. Lawrence River, Niagara Falls, and the International Joint Commission. There’s also water-centric poetry, with its precision of language, and gut punches of truth—think Kwame Dawes, Mike Delp, Chris Dombrowski, Joy Harjo, Jim Harrison, Tracy K. Smith, Alison Swan, Keith Taylor. And finally, there’s the robust work of Indigenous scholars who are teaching us all to think and see differently—Eric Hemenway, David Treuer, Kyle Whyte, and, of course, Robin Wall Kimmerer. All have been inspirational, and I hope to make my own contribution to this literature with, The Accidental Reef.

FLOW: Are you more or less hopeful about the Great Lakes after finishing this book?

Heasley: Surprisingly, I am more hopeful. I still have moments of despair, and fury. Every time Michigan Radio airs its Enbridge sponsorship is a small wound. And yet, our former president did not manage to zero out the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which attests to some bipartisan commitment, even in this most polarized moment. There’s the emergence of incredibly dynamic, tenacious local organizations like Friends of the St. Clair River, Sturgeon For Tomorrow Black River, Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance. And regionally, empowering new collaborations among FLOW, Oil & Water Don’t Mix, Michigan Environmental Council, Clean Water Action, and others. But perhaps most powerful of all is the rise of environmental justice movements. Indigenous communities—Tribes and First Nations—have now fully assumed their centrality as scientific and legal innovators (knowledge generation), organizers (community and relationship building), and activists (direct action, restoration/reparations, healing). I intend to follow their leadership and alternative ways of knowing.

One-Two Punch Clobbers Southeast Michigan: Climate Change and Failing Sewage Systems

Detroit flooding photo courtesy Detroit Metro Times.

A monster rainstorm on June 26 dumped more than 6 inches of rain on Detroit in about 6 hours. The downpour flooded and closed Interstate-94, stranding motorists in high water, and caused widespread sewage backups in city residences. It is a consequence of climate change and a failure by government to invest in infrastructure, Governor Whitmer declared shortly after the disaster. And she’s right.

“We must focus on climate change mitigation and build resilient infrastructure so we don’t see something like this happen again,” Whitmer said.

The June storm followed by only seven years a previous Detroit record rain of 4.57 inches in a 24-hour period in August 2014.

“We must focus on climate change mitigation and build resilient infrastructure so we don’t see something like this happen again.”

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned that more frequent heavy rainstorms in Michigan would result from a changing climate. “Changing the climate is likely to increase the frequency of floods in Michigan. Over the last half century, average annual precipitation in most of the Midwest has increased by 5 to 10 percent. But rainfall during the four wettest days of the year has increased about 35 percent. During the next century, spring rainfall and annual precipitation are likely to increase, and severe rainstorms are likely to intensify. Each of these factors will tend to further increase the risk of flooding.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the record June rainstorm—and other storms in recent years—have exceeded the capacity of the city’s combined system for handling stormwater and wastewater. “There is not a community in America that sizes their stormwater system to be able to handle as much rain in one day as you’d have in two months,” added Duggan. “Nobody would build a system that big.”

The storm, which resulted in a major disaster declaration from President Biden, also hit Detroit suburbs and some Washtenaw County communities hard. Additional storms in July caused significant flooding and damage.

A report by the 21st Century Michigan Infrastructure Commission estimated an $800 million annual shortfall in drinking water and sewer infrastructure. Proposals to increase spending on water needs in Michigan, using federal American Rescue Plan funds approved by Congress, are circulating in Lansing. Governor Whitmer has also proposed a Michigan Clean Water Plan using state funds.

“There is not a community in America that sizes their stormwater system to be able to handle as much rain in one day as you’d have in two months.”

While these funds can provide a short-term boost, Michigan will continue to need water investments in coming decades. FLOW’s proposed Public Water, Public Justice Act would create a trust fund to invest in clean water infrastructure not only in Southeast Michigan, but across the Great Lakes State. Rainfall is intensifying in Michigan, and our investment strategy must intensify as well to meet the moment and the future.

As the Pandemic Flares, Southeast Michigan Cities Start Shutting Off their Residents’ Water Again

Matt Harmon is FLOW’s Milliken intern for communications

By Matt Harmon

Even though Michigan is considered the Great Lake State, bordered by four of the five Great Lakes, and everyone needs water, especially during a global pandemic, some Michigan suburbs like Oak Park and Hazel Park are resuming water shutoff policies after the statewide moratorium expired on March 31 of this year. According to the Oak Park Office of Utility Billing and Collections, Oak Park resumed water shutoffs two weeks ago in conjunction with Sec. 82-269 of their City Code of Ordinances on discontinuances of water service. Meanwhile, cities like Detroit, and various suburbs surrounding the city, are announcing that they are extending their water shutoff moratoria into next year while they look for ways to end shutoffs permanently.

For years, activists have been making the case that Michigan residents can’t possibly protect themselves from illness without clean water at home. During the current pandemic, activists are pressing city officials, questioning how they can’t see the inhumanity of a Michigan resident or families living without running water. Families cannot maintain a healthy environment such as flushing their toilet, bathing, washing their hands, cleaning, and cooking. It’s a matter of survival. That’s what people mean when they proclaim, “Water is life!” 

Organizations like the People’s Water Board Coalition (PWBC) are currently working to end water shutoffs for good, and in some cities their pressure is resulting in renewed moratoria, citing the ongoing pandemic as circumstances for keeping water in homes. Just in Macomb County, cities surrounding Detroit like Warren, New Haven, Roseville, and Centerline have extended the moratorium on water shutoffs, recognizing the inherent danger of shutting off water in the midst of a global pandemic. PWBC’s outreach has been instrumental in reinstating these moratoriums.

As cities in the Detroit metropolitan area resume water shutoffs while the City of Detroit extends its moratorium, PWBC is actively reaching out to Southeast Michigan municipalities to continue the state-wide moratorium and work to implement an income-based water affordability plan. 

Rev. Cass Charrette is an organizer with PWBC and part of an effort to inform city governments that state and federal funding is currently available and more funding is on the way to aid water utilities and customers. The three funding sources Charrette is urging cities to either apply for or expect in the coming months include Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA), and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). According to the Michigan Department of Treasury, ​$1.8 billion of the ARPA funds have been allocated to 49 Michigan cities and townships and $1.93 billion to 83 Michigan counties.

“There’s this narrative that people don’t want to pay their water bills. This is not true. Water is a necessity to life,” said Charrette.

On March 28, 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-28 which created a moratorium on water shutoffs in the State of Michigan. Legislators like Senator Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) were instrumental in securing this moratorium and extending it until March 31, 2021. Months after March 31, cities are now resuming water shutoffs. These municipalities need to be reminded of the importance of clean, running water in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“There’s this narrative that people don’t want to pay their water bills. This is not true. Water is a necessity to life.”

Despite fluctuating mask mandates and lower virus rate peaks, the pandemic is far from over. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant has become the primary strain of coronavirus in the nation with a 70-percent increase in just one week. According to CDC director Rochelle Walensky, a vast majority of the cases are among the unvaccinated.

As of August 2, 2021, Michigan’s COVID rates are increasing, with a total of 2,605 new cases and 26 additional deaths from July 29 to August 2. According to the Oakland County COVID-19 Dashboard where Oak Park and Hazel Park are situated, the 7-day average has been steadily rising since late June and currently rests at 78 cases as of August 4. With our state’s vaccination rates at 63.8 percent, the pandemic still poses a real threat to the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

This is not meant to be alarmist, but rather an observation of the lessons municipalities should have learned over the course of this pandemic. The CDC still lists handwashing as a method of protection against the coronavirus. Additionally, the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition recommends that those recovering from COVID-19 drink 2-4 ounces of water every 15 minutes because “when you are dehydrated, your respiratory secretions thicken and are hard to clear from your lungs.”

On December 8, 2020, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan announced that Detroit would extend its water shutoff moratorium into 2022 and will be looking to discontinue the practice permanently in the coming years. The work of organizations like PWBC in making this moratorium a reality cannot be overstated. Through relief work, activism, organizing, presentations, community meetings, blogs, webinars, and more, activists are at the front of this issue and actualizing real change.

The federal government used to contribute a larger share and much more per capita to municipal water infrastructure. As a result, while the federal government’s spending on Transportation and Water Infrastructure has stayed relatively steady from 1956 to 2017, growth in expenses and in population have soared, leaving state and local governments to pay much more over the same time period. This ultimately results in residents being burdened to pay more than they can afford for these crucial resources.

“We need to change this old way of doing business of paying the expense for having water shut off which puts an added burden on the consumer to pay the shut-off and turn-on fees, when these families already cannot afford the water bill,” said Charrette.

Charrette said some cities have not offered the aforementioned funding sources to residents, keeping residents unaware of the available resources. These funding sources should be on all city websites. PWBC is calling on cities like Oak Park and Hazel Park to continue the moratorium on water shutoffs and use the three government funding programs to clear arrearage debt off all customers with shutoff notices.

“Just as food and shelter are essential to life, so is water. We must change the system to include an income-based water affordability plan so all people can live in dignity with running water and children are not taken away by Health and Human Services for a lack of water.”

So where does that leave residents? For starters, city residents can call their municipal offices and ask about water shutoff policies, attend city council meetings to put the pressure on elected officials to extend moratoriums and establish water affordability programs, and check if they qualify for LIHWAP and/or CERA funding programs to pay for arrearages by visiting the CERA application website.

“Just as food and shelter are essential to life, so is water. We must change the system to include an income-based water affordability plan so all people can live in dignity with running water and children are not taken away by Health and Human Services for a lack of water,” said Charrette.

Farewell to Great Lakes Defender, Senator Carl Levin

The passing on July 29 of former U.S. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan is a solemn moment that presents an opportunity to honor his work to protect the Great Lakes.

The longest-serving U.S. Senator in Michigan’s history, Levin consistently, quietly, and effectively crafted federal legislation and funding to benefit the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem.

The Great Lakes are precious and irreplaceable. We must do all we can to restore and protect them,” Levin said in 2014. His record was consistent with that sentiment.

Levin sponsored the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act of 1990, which toughened standards for toxic substance discharges into the Great Lakes. He authorized monitoring of toxic substances transported through the air into lakes and mandated cleanup plans for toxic areas of concern. Levin directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prepare lakewide management plans for each of the Great Lakes.

“The Great Lakes are precious and irreplaceable. We must do all we can to restore and protect them,” Levin said in 2014. His record was consistent with that sentiment.

He also authored the Great Lakes Ecosystem Protection Act, the Asian Carp Prevention and Control Act, and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act. He was instrumental in creating the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Lake Huron.

Levin was also an enthusiastic and key proponent of federal funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has invested more than $10 billion to clean up toxic sediments, restore fish and wildlife habitat, and promote environmentally sound farm practices.

“Carl Levin considered environmental challenges with the extraordinary intellect and integrity that he brought to all important issues,” said Lana Pollack, former U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission. “Beyond that, he held his commitment to protect the Great Lakes as a special responsibility, born of his love for this magnificent place he called home.”

Sen. Levin poses with then Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore superintendent Dusty Shultz during the inauguration of the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail near Glen Arbor in 2011.