Author: FLOW Editor

Groundwater Threats: Michigan Should Act with Urgency to Pass a State Law to Control TCE

Photo courtesy of the Ohio Department of Health.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in FLOW’s 2021 Report: Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency. 

By Dave Dempsey

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

The many chemical contaminants in Michigan’s groundwater, coupled with the lack of environmentally sustainable federal and state chemical policies, continue to put Michigan at risk. An example is trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing manufactured chemical that has contaminated groundwater at more than 300 locations in Michigan.

In 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the country to outlaw many remaining uses of TCE.

FLOW’s 2021 Deep Threats groundwater report

 Michigan should follow suit.

Commonly used as a solvent to remove grease from metal parts during manufacturing processes or to make additional chemicals, TCE has also been used to extract greases, oils, fats, waxes, and tars by the textile industry; in dry cleaning operations; and in consumer products such as adhesives, paint removers, stain removers, lubricants, paints, varnishes, pesticides, and cold metal cleaners.

TCE released into the environment can pollute soil, groundwater, and the air. TCE’s high mobility in soil often results in groundwater contamination. TCE is slow to degrade and time-consuming to mitigate when it contaminates soil and groundwater. When spilled on the ground, TCE can travel through soil and water and contaminate drinking water supplies, including public and private wells.

In 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the country to outlaw many remaining uses of TCE. Michigan should follow suit.

It can also evaporate. TCE vapors can enter buildings through cracks in the foundation, pipes, and sump and drain systems, thus contaminating indoor air. This phenomenon is known as vapor intrusion. At several Michigan locations where housing and office structures were built on contamination sites, TCE was left in soils rather than being excavated and removed, and has vaporized into these buildings through foundations and basements. In some cases, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has temporarily evacuated occupants of the buildings because of the danger of air inhalation of TCE.

TCE has been characterized as carcinogenic to humans through all routes of exposure and poses a significant human health hazard. Exposure to large amounts of the chemical may lead to coma, nerve damage, or death. TCE is known to interfere with early life development and lead to developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and neurotoxicity. This chemical has also been linked to damage to eyesight, hearing, the liver, the kidney, balance, heartbeat, blood, nervous system, and respiratory system. 

In the workplace, exposure to TCE may cause scleroderma, a systemic autoimmune disease, and, in men, it has been observed to result in decreases to sex drive, sperm quality, and reproductive hormone levels. TCE has been linked to Parkinson’s disease. There is controversy over a decision made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the Trump Administration to reverse findings that TCE exposure to human embryos causes heart defects.

Dumped in shallow, sandy pits decades ago, TCE has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater in Mancelona, Michigan, making the Wickes Manufacturing plume the largest TCE plume in the United States. By contrast, the entire Grand Traverse Bay contains about 10 trillion gallons of water.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1977 banned the use of TCE in food, cosmetic, and drug products in the United States. In Canada, TCE is no longer manufactured, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999 is intended to significantly reduce the use and release of TCE as a solvent degreaser into the environment. Several other countries, including Sweden and Germany, have regulations to control the use, and subsequent risks, of TCE.

In November 2020 a U.S. EPA study found that 52 of 54 uses of TCE still permitted present unreasonable risk to worker and consumer health. The EPA has two years to finalize a rule to reduce the risks posed by the 52 uses.

State action also has a place in efforts to protect human health from TCE. On May 16, 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the U.S. to ban high-risk uses of TCE. In effect, beginning June 1, 2022, any facility that is required to have an air emissions permit by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency may not use TCE.

This ban was enacted largely due to the work of the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group (NCCG) of White Bear Township, Minnesota, which sought the ban after the Water Gremlin, a local fishing sinker manufacturer, had admitted to leaking elevated levels of TCE for nearly 17 years.

Dumped in shallow, sandy pits decades ago, TCE has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater in Mancelona, Michigan, making the Wickes Manufacturing plume the largest TCE plume in the United States. By contrast, the entire Grand Traverse Bay contains about 10 trillion gallons of water. Taxpayers have spent more than $27 million to provide safe drinking water to Mancelona residents of  properties whose private wells have been contaminated by TCE.

Several case studies have been performed to analyze the effectiveness of TCE alternatives in the United States. One example is a Schick facility in Verona, Virginia, that manufactures a variety of steel blades and uses TCE in both cleaning and degreasing operations. The company made TCE elimination a priority. The resulting process modifications reduced occupational and public risk and resulted in an approximate cost reduction of $250,000 from reduced energy use and material and hazardous waste disposal costs. Several companies in Michigan have also made the switch to TCE-free degreasing products.

Given the uncertainty of federal policy, Michigan should not wait to take action to limit most TCE uses, just as Michigan did not wait for the EPA to set enforceable standards for toxic PFAS in drinking water. Because it has a paramount interest in protecting the health of its residents, Michigan should act with urgency to pass a state law to control TCE.

Green Infrastructure: Using and Mimicking Nature for Climate Resilience

Rain gardens on Michigan Street in Grand Rapids are eye-pleasing and effective at minimizing stormwater runoff. Photo courtesy West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

By Henry Ludwig, Milliken Law and Policy Intern at FLOW

At FLOW, I have spent time this summer thinking about how we can help municipalities across the Great Lakes region create green infrastructure solutions. A few weeks ago, I found myself stuck in a downpour in the streets of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and witnessed green infrastructure in action. To me, it was like seeing a movie star.

Green infrastructure is a different way of thinking about a city’s stormwater system.

The growth of cities has created thousands of acres of impervious surfaces where water has nowhere to go. Buildings, roads, and parking lots prevent rainwater from seeping into the soil where it falls, creating runoff. Traditional city design has used “gray infrastructure,” miles of storm sewers and drainage ditches that aggregate and funnel stormwater and discharge into surface water. This runoff water picks up pollutants like oil from cars, road salt, and fertilizers, which harms our lakes, rivers, and streams. Stormwater runoff is a significant non-point source of pollution to urban waterways.

Green infrastructure is merely a flashy name for when cities design solutions for stormwater and flooding that involve or replicate nature. In nature, a water droplet hits the ground and is absorbed into the soil until saturated and either percolates into groundwater or is taken up by a nearby plant and evaporated. The goal of green infrastructure is to infiltrate, evaporate, or otherwise mitigate stormwater as close to where it falls as possible.

Green infrastructure relies on decentralized, nature-based solutions. Some examples of green infrastructure projects include rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavement, street trees, and infiltration ditches landscaped with native plants.

Some green infrastructure solutions—think permeable bricks and asphalt and green roofs—seek to increase permeable surfaces. In effect, these solutions reduce the total amount of runoff that a stormwater system must handle. Green infrastructure takes a two-fold approach: (1) it seeks to reduce runoff at the source by eliminating impervious surfaces where droplets fall, and (2) it aims to infiltrate runoff in a decentralized system, wherever possible.

While it may seem new and radical, green infrastructure represents a return to nature with hopes of fixing the problems of a human-centered world. The infrastructure solutions take a step back from the traditional vision of civil engineering. Rather than attempting to exert control over water, it gives water natural places to flow.

Green infrastructure can play a crucial role in coping with the increasing effects of climate change in urban environments. Gray infrastructure is inflexible; the projects are designed to handle a certain amount of runoff and are difficult and expensive to expand. City engineers develop these projects to handle the worst-case rainfall that historical data can predict. But rainfall events are worsening, with 100- and 500-year flood events becoming more common. Historical data cannot predict what will happen in the future with a changing climate. With these significant storms, gray infrastructure faces bottlenecks and failures. These failures have caused significant damage across Michigan cities.

The damages caused by these increased rainfalls are not only a problem for urban areas. Rural and coastal areas have also experienced extreme flooding and associated damage. Green infrastructure presents a flexible, project-by-project approach that can alleviate the risk posed by extreme rainfall events without the need for a major, costly gray infrastructure project.

Besides efficient stormwater mitigation and reductions in pollution, green infrastructure has many carry-on benefits. Among these benefits are increased property values, greater access to parks and nature, cooler cities, and safer roads. Green infrastructure increases green spaces in cities. These solutions can be integrated into parks or used along roads to improve curb appeal. The use of native plants in green infrastructure projects allows the projects to blend in sustainably with a neighborhood. Using permeable pavement and increasing tree cover from street trees can avoid the heat-island effect caused by artificial surfaces absorbing and radiating the sun’s heat. Permeable asphalt has been shown to reduce ice build-up in the winter, leading to safer driving conditions. These additional benefits position green infrastructure as a potential collaborative approach among numerous city departments and goals.

I was in Grand Rapids when Michigan saw days of intense rain. While large parts of Detroit were flooding, Grand Rapids was not. I witnessed water running down street corners into sunken rain gardens rather than pooling around overflowing storm drains. Though the rain in western Michigan was just as heavy as it was in southeast Michigan, there were solutions in place for it.

Things were not always so rosy in Grand Rapids. In 2014, days of heavy rains led to widespread flooding in the city. This event culminated in extremely high river levels, which nearly led to catastrophe if bridges or floodwalls had failed. This event served as a wake-up call spurring the acceleration of ongoing green infrastructure implementation.

Grand Rapids has led the charge in Michigan and the nation to adopt green infrastructure solutions. Former Mayor George Heartwell made green infrastructure a priority for the city by leading the charge in rewriting city ordinances to eliminate barriers to its adoption. The city again sought to mimic nature when rebuilding and shoring up floodwalls on the Grand River in the aftermath of the 2013 flooding. Rather than building larger concrete walls, the city worked with engineers to design a system of many small levees, walls, and rocky shoals to increase both public, recreational access to the river and its banks, and the river’s aesthetic value. The city’s Vital Streets initiative has also sought to replace parking lanes with permeable asphalt and implement other green infrastructure solutions whenever doing substantial work on city streets. In short, the city has made it a priority to incorporate nature into the city, and it has paid off.

Non-governmental groups have also played a critical role in the success of green infrastructure in Grand Rapids. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) has done crucial work in public education on the implementation of green infrastructure solutions. WMEAC has also participated in research on the costs and benefits of green infrastructure and created a tool called Rainwater Rewards to help citizens perform a cost-benefit analysis of green infrastructure solutions on their property. The Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW) has also been instrumental in providing resources to guide private developers in the use of green infrastructure and imagining a green infrastructure future for the whole watershed.

In FLOW’s neck of the woods up in Traverse City, The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay has installed green infrastructure around the region. The Watershed Center has installed 18 rain gardens and nearly ¾ miles of infiltration trenches to reduce stormwater flow into Suttons Bay, reducing the risk of bacterial contamination of nearshore waters caused by nutrient runoff. Additionally, the Watershed Center has installed infiltration trenches in Traverse City to reduce nonpoint-source pollution of Kids Creek, which is on Michigan’s Impaired Waters List.   

At the end of the day, however, green infrastructure is just infrastructure. While it may seem new and radical, green infrastructure represents a return to nature with hopes of fixing the problems of a human-centered world. The infrastructure solutions take a step back from the traditional vision of civil engineering. Rather than attempting to exert control over water, it gives water natural places to flow.

Dave Dempsey Reflects: “Public Trust Doctrine is Key That Can Unlock Environmental Doors For Us”

“FLOW is responsible for the major success we’ve had so far as a movement in halting the Line 5 pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac,” said FLOW senior policy advisor Dave Dempsey in this testimonial about the impact we’ve had during the past decade.

During 2021, our 10th anniversary year, FLOW supporters and collaborators are sharing reflections on what our work together has meant to them and to the freshwaters of the Great Lakes Basin.

“Without the public trust doctrine that Jim Olson and Liz Kirkwood have been advocating, that pipeline would be set to operate for another 50 years, and I think we’re in a position to shut it down, thanks for FLOW’s work on this. I think of the public trust doctrine as the key that can unlock all the environmental doors for us. It can protect our water, protect our air, protect us from climate change. It’s the secret weapon.”

Watch a video below of Dave Dempsey’s testimonial:

Line 5 Oil Tunnel: U.S. Army Corps Environmental Study Marks a Return to the Rule of Law

By Jim Olson and Nora Baty

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder and Legal Advisor

In recognition of the critical importance of the Great Lakes and the rule of law, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced June 23 that the federal agency will conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS) for Enbridge’s Line 5 oil tunnel proposed for the Straits of Mackinac–handing citizens and communities battling the existential threat of climate change an important victory.

These evaluations delve into critical questions of risks, impacts, and alternatives—particularly a “no action” alternative when it comes to the falling demand for crude oil and the blazing heat waves across North America. Because of the depth of this evaluation and based on past practice, the EIS process will likely take three-and-a-half years to complete. While this may result in no tunnel or delay a tunnel, if it is ever built, the decision points to an even more critical action: It’s time to double-down on an orderly shutdown of the perilous Line 5 Pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.

“The Army will ensure all voices are heard in an open, transparent and public process through development of the EIS and is committed to ensuring that meaningful and robust consultation with tribal nations occurs.”

Nora Baty is a Milliken Law and Policy Intern at FLOW.

Governor Whitmer and the Department of Natural Resources, under their solemn public trust duty to exercise prudence to protect the Great Lakes from a massive oil spill that would cost more than $6 billion, had little choice but to revoke the 1953 easement and close the 70-year old hazard. With the falling demand for crude oil, and capacity in other pipelines that criss-cross the continent, adjustments in oil transport can meet Canadian demand and the relatively minor need for crude oil from Line 5 for Michigan.

Finally a Full and Comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement

Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), an EIS is required for major projects “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” The law, as contemplated, established rules to ensure that the federal government considers the health and environmental effects and alternatives to actions proposed by corporations seeking permits. Under the NEPA rollbacks by the Trump Administration, agencies and citizens had little chance to trigger an EIS under NEPA, despite the magnitude of the action and environmental risks.

Now under the Biden Administration, “The Army will ensure all voices are heard in an open, transparent and public process through development of the EIS and is committed to ensuring that meaningful and robust consultation with tribal nations occurs,” according to a press release. The USACE’s decision to require an environmental impact statement and its commitment to the rule of law are important to ensure there is a robust record examining the impacts of the proposed project, using scientific data and expert opinions, and that alternatives to the project are adequately considered. 

Courts and agency decisions have rejected projects with incomplete scientific data or that fail to assess alternatives to avoid environmental impacts. Earlier this year, Michigan Administrative Law Judge Daniel Pulter denied the Back-Forty permit for a massive mining project in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula because the underlying hydrogeologic information, wetland impacts, and the potential alternatives were not adequately evaluated. 

FLOW’s legal team aided in this effort in December 2020 by submitting comprehensive comments to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calling for an environmental impact statement on behalf of a dozen organizations: Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, Clean Water Action—Michigan, FLOW, Groundwork Center, League of Women Voters of Michigan, Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, NMEAC, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, Straits Area Concerned Citizens for Peace, Justice and Environment, Straits of Mackinac Alliance, and TC 350. The comments demonstrated a serious gap in Enbridge’s incomplete evaluation of the presence of loose, unconsolidated rock and sediment in the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac that the company at one point characterized as solid bedrock.

This EIS decision marks a return to NEPA’s mandate that the federal government review major projects to the “fullest extent possible.” This is particularly important for Line 5 in light of the decreasing demand for crude oil and the shift in Canada and the U.S. to renewable energy (wind, solar, conservation), and a “no action” alternative to the tunnel is more likely than ever.

Line 5 Is No Longer Necessary

The no action alternative for a proposed project, such as Enbridge’s proposed oil tunnel, looks at the effects of not approving the action under consideration. Here, Enbridge will need to prove, first, that the tunnel and Line 5 are even needed, and second, if there is a need, that there are no other routes or existing lines into Ohio, Michigan, and into Canada. According to FLOW’s experts, available capacity and flexibility to meet energy demand in the Great Lakes region already exists in the North American energy pipeline system operated by Enbridge and its competition without threatening our public waters, including Enbridge’s Line 78 across southern Michigan.

Unfortunately for Enbridge, and fortunately for the climate, the energy landscape is shifting and renewable energy growth is accelerating. At the same time, the beginning of Line 5 tunnel construction looks farther and farther away. One study found that such federal reviews, known as environmental impact statements, take an average of nearly 3-and-a-half years to complete, and then permits and construction would take years longer after that.

The tunnel may or may not be constructed. While Enbridge continues to operate Line 5 in the Straits, violating the law, and threatening the Great Lakes and the region’s economy, the existing dual pipelines pose an unacceptable risk of massive harm to the Great Lakes, communities, citizens, and businesses. The reality is that we can no longer wait for Line 5 to be shut down. It is time for the court process and the State and citizens of the Great Lakes Basin to bring the State’s revocation of Enbridge’s 68-year old easement and pipeline to a close.

SW Detroit Community Care Cleans Basements after Historic Flooding

The SW Detroit Community Care team poses for a group photo after cleaning southwest Detroit residents’ basements. Photo by Jesus Arzola-Vega courtesy of SW Detroit Community Cares

By Matt Harmon

FLOW’s Milliken Intern for Communications

As the Earth’s atmosphere continues to increase in temperature due to human-caused climate change, scientists agree that we will see once-rare weather events happen more and more frequently. 

On the heels of the “once in 100 years” flooding event in 2014, nearly seven inches of rainfall overwhelmed the City of Detroit’s wastewater treatment facilities on Friday, June 25, and the following morning. As a result, rain and sewer water flooded basements all across the city. Bridge Detroit reported that the Detroit Water and Sewage Department received more than 75,000 calls about flooded basements.

Many Detroiters remember the flooding from August 11, 2014, when four to six inches of rain fell over a four-hour period. Not only have Detroiters seen more rainfall this year than they did in 2014, but residents had no way to prepare for the oncoming rain. Forecasters predicted less than two inches of rain prior to the flooding.

As soon as neighbors began reporting flooded basements, organizers with SW Detroit Community Care (SWDCC), a mutual aid coalition operating within Southwest Detroit, sprang into action, recruiting volunteers through social media to clean basements for whomever needed it. FLOW sat down with SWDCC organizers Angela Gallegos and Eric Finkler after they spent a day cleaning basements with a group of volunteers to discuss their efforts, mutual aid, and how best to support their community.

What is mutual aid? To Finkler, mutual aid is “community assistance, when people in the community step up to help the community at large.” Gallegos added that mutual aid fills a need even when we’re not in times of crisis, as its job is to act “as a family, as an extension, as a helping hand.”

According to Dean Spade, author of the book, Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the Next), mutual aid is “based on a shared understanding that the crises we are facing are caused by the system that we’re living under, and are worsened by those systems.”

SWDCC was created by a group of organizers in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the organization’s basement-cleaning effort recognizes the precarious financial position in which the pandemic has placed individuals.

“A lot of people didn’t have emergency funds saved up, and they lost their washer, their dryer, their water heater, maybe their heater, so finding out how to get those appliances has been an ask. They definitely need clean-up support,” said Gallegos. “They have family that can help them, but their family is getting their own basement situated. Every day that passes, mold can build up, so it’s a mess and they need help cleaning it up.”

Gallegos and Finkler discussed residents’ need for “immediate remediation.” Their organization uses an online form as one means for residents to convey their needs and request help.

Fortunately, it may not rest entirely on the tenants of a rental property to fix their basements. According to an Emergency Order from the City of Detroit’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department on the Michigan Mutual Aid Coalition’s Instagram, the flooded basements are “an imminent danger to public health and safety under Section 8-15-42 of the 2019 Detroit City Code.”

As such, the order mandates that landlords have until July 19 to make sure there is no standing water in basements, that drains are clear of debris, that the flooded area be cleaned and sanitized, that a functional hot water tank and furnace be installed, that the electric panel be operable, and that all trash be removed.

As SWDCC moves forward with providing for neighbors, Gallegos said there are multiple ways those in and out of Detroit could support their efforts. Those interested in donating items can follow the SWDCC social media channels on Instagram and Facebook where they will post specific requests from residents. If you are interested in volunteering, Gallegos recommended sending a direct message to their social media accounts so they can coordinate volunteers. If you would like to donate monetarily, SWDCC has a Venmo account set up (@swcares) where they transfer direct funds to residents.

“There’s so much that we’re trying to figure out how to help after the cleanup,” Gallegos said.

Exploring the Soul of Place: New Book Conveys Stories of Northwest Michigan

By Dave Dempsey

Author Timothy Mulherin

Author Timothy Mulherin’s new book, Sand, Stars, Wind, & Water: Field Notes from Up North, sees the Grand Traverse region through the eyes of a frequent visitor who has fallen in love with its natural beauty and character. In this interview with FLOW, Mulherin talks about what inspired him to write the book—and the good and bad he sees on his saunters along the shoreline.

How would you describe your book to somebody who’s not yet picked it up? What is the story that you tell?

The book has three major themes: place and identity, enduring friendship bonded by love of the outdoors, and environmental concern due to the increasing visitor pressure on the region and how we can coexist and successfully manage this human impact. The reader will find that humor is in no short supply 

I first came to northwestern lower Michigan in 1986 at the invitation of my best friend, a Traverse City native, who tended bar with me in Indianapolis while we worked our way through college. When I drove in on M-72 from Kalkaska and saw Grand Traverse Bay for the first time, it was absolutely love at first sight. I spent my first 10 years on the planet in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. My parents moved us to Indianapolis in 1966 under unfortunate familial circumstances. I stepped off the TWA prop plane and onto the tarmac—and was in a state of shock I’ve never completely recovered from: not a mountain in sight; flatland as far as the eye could see. I was a stranger in a strange land. But when I visited Grand Traverse County and the surrounding region for the first time, with all of its natural splendor, it was a life-changing experience: I had come home.

Describe several of your stories, and explain what they’re about and how they fit into the book’s overall theme.

“M-22” characterizes the overarching theme of place in the book and how people connect with areas of striking beauty such as Leelanau and Benzie counties. M-22 is now a heavily branded destination, and the logo is ubiquitous (and can be frequently spotted as vehicle window decals in Midwestern cities like Indianapolis). I explore what makes this road, and the land it winds its way through, so special for me, and what I believe makes it so appealing and memorable for those who travel this incredibly scenic highway.

“Invasive Species” starts out talking about the many damaging aquatic species that are afflicting the Great Lakes, and specifically, Lake Michigan. It then veers into the increasing popularity of northern Michigan as a tourist destination and all that comes with that. How we identify with place carries an inherent obligation to take care of it—for visitors and locals alike.

 “One Helluva Sail” portrays the adventurous spirit of my consummate outdoorsman best friend and our close relationship, built over many years and countless diversions, which pervades a number of the pieces. In 1996, we sailed the 30-plus nautical miles from Charlevoix to Beaver Island—big lake on a small boat. His admirable sailing skills got us there and back in one piece, despite the rough seas on the way home. He’s my surrogate big brother, and this story shows how big brothers can influence younger ones to step outside of their comfort zone, which, if you survive the experience, is truly good for the soul.

How long have you been thinking about writing the book? What was the impetus for completing it now?

I served as the CEO of an urban public charter school in Indy during the pandemic, which was enormously challenging, having to make public health decisions during a national emergency. The silver lining for me is that I realized that my love of writing, which began four decades ago while pursuing my English degree and then journalism master’s degree, and my later college teaching experience, deserved my attention. The adage that life is short came sharply into focus for me during the past 15 months. It was time to return to my calling.

What are you seeing on the beach when you walk it this summer? What does it tell you about people’s concern and respect for the outdoors?  

I’m spending nearly a month at our seasonal cabin in Cedar [in Leelanau County] this summer. Every morning I drive down to Good Harbor Bay Beach and hike southwest toward Pyramid Point. My walks are quiet meditations before the visitors set up camp for the day. However, my solitude has been disturbed by the amount of trash that is littering the shoreline. Some of it comes from boats, some from storms clawing at coastal properties, and much of it from folks spending the day at the beach. It’s an extraordinary amount of refuse. My question is, why? People should inherently respect our nation’s beautiful natural resources. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore—and the entire region, for that matter—is a national treasure. Enjoy your visit, and leave no trace—other than goodwill. There is a palpable tension growing due to the increasing tourist pressure and the thoughtless disrespect for nature that insults those who call this special place home. I realize that most people are respectful and pick up after themselves, but those who don’t are making quite the negative impact. It really doesn’t have to be this way. 

What would you tell people who want to keep the area beautiful for future generations?

We’re all just passing through in this life. As the Indigenous people tried to explain to the Europeans when they first made landfall here in North America, and have repeated ever since, none of us really owns this land. We are all called to be stewards of the Earth. If we made it a way of life to behave as if our children are watching—and they are, you know—this world would be a better place. So, visit, enjoy, and fall in love with the region and its people. It’s easy. Just remember that it’s everyone’s responsibility to respect the land and leave it the way we found it for those who come after us.

Like most of us who know the area, one of the primary attractions for me in northern Michigan is water. I love being on, in, or just near Lake Michigan, as well as the region’s many inland lakes, rivers, and streams. It’s always something of a spiritual experience for me, especially trout fishing in the Jordan and Boardman rivers. And that’s because trout can only live in clear, clean waterwhich is nowhere to be found in central Indiana, where I currently reside. That water Michiganders and visitors enjoy is such a gift and should never be taken for granted. The work of FLOW, to protect and preserve the vital natural resource that is the Great Lakes, is so critical and worthynow more than ever before. Such essential organizations deserve our thanks and ongoing support.

For more information about Tim Mulherin and his book, Sand, Stars, Wind, & Water: Field Notes from Up North, visit Mulherin’s website.

On the Road: A Midwestern Hydrologist Eyes the Increasing Demand for the Diminishing Waters of the American West and Southwest

Photo by Bob Otwell. Traverse City resident Laura Otwell stands at the high-and-dry boat launch at the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California.

Bob Otwell

By Bob Otwell, FLOW Board member

This past April, my wife Laura and I took a month-long car trip from Traverse City through several arid states—western Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California—enroute to visit family in Seattle. We mostly camped and visited tourist sites, and enjoyed the dry, warm weather, as early spring cold lingered over the Upper Midwest.

As we have on previous trips, Laura and I observed how water in the Southwest is undersupplied and overused. The experience reminded me about one of the primary reasons I joined FLOW’s Board of Directorsto help ensure that Great Lakes water stays in our watershed and is not diverted to dry, Southwestern and Western states.

The experience reminded me about one of the primary reasons I joined FLOW’s Board of Directors—to help ensure that Great Lakes water stays in our watershed and is not diverted to dry, Southwestern and Western states.

We camped at the Lake Oroville State Recreation Area in the Sierra Nevada foothills, east of the Sacramento Valley in California. The above photo shows Laura at the Lake Oroville “boat launch.” This boat launch is high and dry, as the lake was about 200 feet below normal pool. The Oroville Dam, an earthfill embankment dam on the Feather River, is the tallest in the United States at 770 feet. Serving mainly for water supply, hydroelectricity generation, and flood control, the dam has suffered structural problems over the past decade. The water held back serves the California water project, which provides water to the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, and the almond groves of the Central Valley. What is not visible in this photo are the results of the fire that devastated much of the far hillside in September 2020, including part of the campground where we stayed.

After Lake Oroville, we travelled to northern California and stayed at Castle Crags State Park. On a hike, we met a State Forest Service forester who was working with a crew to thin out the forest while piling the debris to be burned. Her concern was the drought was already in effect, and she was worried the weather was too dry to burn the piles.

I have observed the harmful effects of unsustainable water use during multiple trips to the West and American Southwest in the past decade. Ten years ago, Laura and I took a 10-month, 9,000-mile journey around the perimeter of the western United States on touring bicycles. As I wrote in a subsequent story published in the Northern Express, “we passed many state lines, the geography changed subtly over days as we travelled at the speed of a bike. Coastlines, mountain tops, watershed divides, and river valleys [were] the features that defined our trip.”

I have observed the harmful effects of unsustainable water use during multiple trips to the West and American Southwest in the past decade.

When we returned home to Traverse City in 2012, I immersed myself in reading about the development of western water projects. Cadillac Desert (Reisner, 1986) was particularly revealing regarding the scope of massive western water projects. The book discussed how projects were planned, funded, and built despite questionable and perhaps short-term benefits, not to mention all of the enormous cultural and environmental impacts.

The construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s really ignited the colossal federal water projects out West that created unsustainable new farming acreage and uncontrolled population growth across the arid landscape. From the 1930s through the 1970s (when the modern U.S. environmental movement slowed the relentless pace), hundreds of major dams were built. These projects were mostly federally funded, and what western politician wouldn’t love a project that would bring water and also electricity to her/his area? As the water fever grew, merits of a particular project became less important than just getting your fair share of the federal dollar. The concept of users paying for the cost of the projects also fell by the wayside.

One goal of many of the projects built in the 1930s was to provide jobs. This made sense at the time, but rings hollow now. In 2011, we camped for two nights at Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River in northern Montana. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, this dam created a reservoir 130 miles long and 200 feet deep. Picture an artificial lake that would stretch from Traverse City almost to Lansing. In the 1930s, 10,000 construction workers lived in the Town of Fort Peck and area shantytowns. Yet during our 2011 trip, we could not buy a loaf of bread within 20 miles of the mostly abandoned town.

Because of these water projects, a sizable U.S. population moved westward, in turn, shifting Congressional votes and political power. For example, in 1932, California and Michigan had nearly the same number of congressional seats (20 versus 17). California will now have 52 seats, and Michigan will drop to 13 seats for the next presidential election. This growth could not have happened without federally funded water projects.

The unprecedented artificial environment that has been created out West will not last. Where will they look for new sources of water?

The problem with all of this, and what it may mean to those of us in the Great Lakes region, is that the useful life of many of these projects will be coming to an end sometime soon. Dams eventually fill up with silt, and the structure deteriorates. Irrigation in arid climates dewaters aquifers and can increase the salinity of the soil. Climate change will put additional stress on the system, with rising demand for irrigation water, increased evaporation from reservoirs, and less snowpack in the mountains. The unprecedented artificial environment that has been created out West will not last. Where will they look for new sources of water?

The West’s need for water is not diminishing, and conservation is ingrained only in isolated pockets of populations on the landscape. For example, on that 2011 trip, Arizona state parks were the first ones we encountered in the West where the showers were free—all the hot water you wanted, for free (not that we complained). At the same time though, Tucson is monitoring its depleted groundwater levels, and that data is now reported in the daily news, like the weather. There is perhaps a growing realization of the need to conserve Arizona’s limited water.

The West’s need for water is not diminishing, and conservation is ingrained only in isolated pockets of populations on the landscape.

Those of us living near the Great Lakes have a treasured resource that we need to be vigilant to preserve, value, and guard for our future generations. Massive projects can be built, and maintained on life support, with a region’s unchecked demands and political will. Shipping Great Lakes water to the arid West no longer feels like an idle threat.

About the Author—Bob Otwell, who has served on FLOW’s Board of Directors since 2013, is a hydrologist, civil engineer, and founder of Otwell Mawby engineering in Traverse City, Michigan.

Founding FLOW Board Member Royce Ragland: Public Trust Combines Policy, Stewardship, Theology and Philosophy

“It was 10 years ago that I first met Jim Olson, and I invited him to be a guest speaker for Green Elk Rapids,” recalls Royce Ragland, the organization’s co-founder and a founding FLOW board member. “He talked about his favorite thing—the public trust. I was just so taken with the idea. It’s an old thought. It combines everything from policy to stewardship to theology to philosophy. I loved it.”

For 10 years FLOW has worked to keep our water public and protected. During 2021, our 10th anniversary year, FLOW supporters and collaborators are sharing reflections on what our work together has mean to them and to the freshwaters of the Great Lakes Basin.

“FLOW gave me an understanding of the importance of policy,” said Ragland. “It gave me an appreciation of the role and the link between policy, which is what FLOW works so mightily on, and the role of everyday life and needing our water, caring about our water. It just merges it all together.

“I chair the planning commission in Elk Rapids, where we seek to raise awareness about environmental ordinances—especially water ordinances. This is the work of everyday citizens trying to alert each other about how we need to take care of these issues, these elements. When friends and neighbors know you’re involved with an organization or a board, it’s an endless opportunity to educate.

“It’s easy to take it for granted. It’s easy to lose an understanding for how policy relates to laws and legislation and advocacy.”

Watch Royce Ragland’s FLOW video testimonial below.

Paddling for Change, from the Mackinac Bridge to Lansing

By Jacob Wheeler

FLOW Communications Coordinator

Childhood friends William Wright and Chris Yahanda wanted to do their part to protect the Great Lakes and, in particular, to urge Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to shut down the Line 5 oil pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac by terminating the easement of Canadian pipeline company Enbridge.

FLOW and other environmental groups have long made the case that the turbulent waters under the Mackinac Bridge, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, represent the most dangerous place in the Great Lakes for a catastrophic Line 5 oil spill. Enbridge has a shoddy track record in Michigan. The company’s Line 6B pipeline rupture into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 caused one of the worst inland spills in U.S. history.

FLOW and our partners in the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign have long pressured Michigan state government to shut down Line 5. Gov. Whitmer announced on November 13, 2020, that she would revoke and terminate Enbridge’s pipeline easement, effective May 12, 2021. The pipeline company continues to fight the order in court.

“We thought, maybe we can tell a story through a paddle journey in the places that we love and show how we can protect them,” said Wright. “The Line 5 issue spurred our desire to take this journey.”

Watch our interview with William Wright and Chris Yahanda and footage of their journey thus far.

Wright and Yahanda are currently paddling 425 miles over approximately 45 days, from the Straits of Mackinac, down the west coast of Michigan, up the Grand River through Grand Rapids, and ultimately to the State Capitol in Lansing. Their friend Davis Huber, a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, is capturing their journey and plans to make a film about their effort.

On June 9 the paddleboarders left Mackinac Island where the Michigan governor has a guest mansion, and headed for the Mackinac Bridge, itself. Sometime in late July or early August, they will bookend their trip when they arrive at the governor’s office.

“We go in support of her effort to shut down Line 5,” said Wright.

For Yahanda, paddling under the Mackinac Bridge, where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, inspired awe and respect for nature.

“I’ve been over the Bridge many times, but to see it from underneath, to be so close to the water and really see the magnitude of the convergence of that water, it’s different,” he said. “You can definitely feel the energy of the transfer of water. Even the air feels different. How quickly it could turn on a dime.

“We couldn’t help but think of how important that place is to protect and how disastrous it would be if millions of gallons of oil were poured into it.”

Paddling southwest toward the Leelanau Peninsula, Wright and Yahanda encountered days with headwinds that prevented them from making much distance. But they also experienced calm days that allowed them to paddle for 20 miles or more at a time. On June 17 they paddled 28 miles, from Norwood, just south of Charlevoix, to Leland—their best day yet.

“We learned pretty quickly about the power of the water,” said Wright. “There have been times when we came out of a bay and had the wind direction change on a dime. The weather out there can really impact us on paddleboards since we’re small and catch wind pretty easily. We have learned firsthand the respect we need to have for Mother Nature.”

On June 20 they paddled down the Leelanau coast, past the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore’s majestic dunes, and spent the night at Point Betsie in Benzie County.

“We had a perfectly clear day with low wind while seeing the bluff and the sand come straight to the water,” said Wright. “That coastline is so beautiful, from Pyramid Point and down the coast of Sleeping Bear.”

They are currently camping in Ludington State Park.

Wright and Yahanda are collaborating with FLOW, M22, the northern Michigan outdoor apparel brand, Oil & Water Don’t Mix, and Mawby Sparkling Wine—which recently unveiled a “Shut Down Line 5” sparkling wine.

“We are stoked to partner with FLOW. From the very beginning of our project, Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s executive director, has helped us develop a deeper understanding of the water issues plaguing the Great Lakes,” said Wright.

Learn more about, and support, Wright and Yahanda’s journey by visiting their website, or follow them on Instagram.

It’s Raining PFAS

By Dave Dempsey

Every now and then an environmental news headline jumps out at you as though it were printed in 12-inch-tall type on a newspaper front page or web site. It’s not necessarily because of its significance when compared to other news, but because of the personal reaction it triggers.

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s Senior Advisor and renowned author of books on Michigan’s environmental history.

Such was the case for me with this one: “It’s Raining ‘Forever Chemicals’ in the Great Lakes,” one website reported recently. “Scientists found high levels of PFAS in raindrops across several states.”

Not only that, but the PFAS chemicals discussed in the story are being detected just 25 miles down the road from my home in Traverse City at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. That’s a finding of new data from the International Atmospheric Deposition Network (IADN), which has been monitoring the fallout of chemicals like PCBs and DDT since the mid-1990s.

PFAS chemicals are being detected just 25 miles down the road from my home in Traverse City at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

In light of the growing concern over PFAS compounds, which have been used in everything from firefighting foam to non-stick cookware and have been associated with adverse human health effects, the IADN administrators added the chemicals to the monitoring. 

They have found PFAS at potential levels of concern at all six IADN monitoring sites where the data have been gathered.

“When we compare these chemicals to the legacy compounds—PCBs and pesticides—we see that they are one or two orders of magnitude bigger in the same samples,” Marta Venier, a professor at Indiana University, told Great Lakes Now.

While disturbing on its face, the news does not mean we are being poisoned directly by the raindrops that fall on our skin. It’s still safe to go out in the rain, if you don’t mind getting wet. Our primary exposure to these chemicals is consumption of PFAS-contaminated water or food, using products made with PFAS, or breathing air containing PFAS. 

But the new data do mean PFAS chemicals are everywhere, and that the atmosphere is conveying them from places where they are used and released into the environment to places scores or hundreds of miles away. And that means more PFAS building up in those places and, slowly, in our bodies.

The new data means that PFAS chemicals are everywhere, and that the atmosphere is conveying them from places where they are used and released into the environment to places scores or hundreds of miles away. And that means more PFAS building up in those places and, slowly, in our bodies.

PFAS follow PBDEs, which replaced PBB. The cycle repeats itself over and over: one chemical is found to pose unacceptable risks and actual harm, so it is replaced with another, which in turn is also found to be risky and damaging.

That’s what the all-important science says. What the all-important heart says is that there is something deeply wrong. When we find toxic materials literally raining onto ourselves and our sacred places, we as a society are doing something deeply wrong. And if we ever become numb to it, we as individuals and society have become part of the problem.

When we think of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, do we want to recall a vast panorama of sky, sand, and water—or of invisible chemicals falling down on that breathtaking scene?

Apathy is not an option. Only citizen demands of government, and human persistence that surpasses the persistence of PFAS, will get us out of this predicament.

You can learn more about PFAS, and Michigan’s response to it, here.