EGLE using innovation to keep Michigan water a global treasure
Not a day goes by when I’m not reminded of Michigan’s unique place on Earth — surrounded by 20% of the planet’s fresh surface water, in the heart of the world’s greatest freshwater ecosystem.
Every Michigander relies on that water in some way — for drinking, sanitation, recreation, livelihoods and economic security. We all have a responsibility to be wise stewards of the Great Lakes.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy plays a leading role in ensuring they remain healthy for generations to come.
It has been two years since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer entrusted me with the leadership of EGLE and its critical mission of protecting Michigan’s environment and public health. We’ve made tremendous progress in accelerating and improving Michigan’s water protections — both in the drinking water systems that are critical for healthy lives and surface and groundwater safeguards that protect our natural resources and quality of life.
EGLE is taking the lead on implementing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Clean Water plan, a historic investment of $500 million in water infrastructure from source to tap. That provides direct investments for communities, helps provide safe, clean water to residents, and supports thousands of Michigan jobs. We are pleased with the bipartisan support for that package and are working with the Michigan Legislature to pass enabling legislation to authorize the remaining investments in MI Clean Water.
Michigan also is leading on the emerging contaminant Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS.
We recently established drinking water standards for seven PFAS compounds, requiring community water supplies to keep those chemicals below health-based levels in the water they deliver to Michigan homes. Corresponding PFAS groundwater standards will protect residents with private water wells. We also achieved public water system connections for 1,000 households with contaminated wells through a legal settlement with Wolverine Worldwide for its PFAS contamination of groundwater in the Grand Rapids area.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, EGLE played a key role in implementing an executive order protecting Michiganders from water shutoffs during the pandemic and providing local governments with financial support to reconnect homes to public water supplies. We helped ensure that program will continue into 2021 by advocating for the Water Shutoff Restoration Act, which Gov. Whitmer signed in late December 2020.
New ground was also broken in providing new tools for residents to help ensure clean water and responsive action to water concerns. We launched the Clean Water Ambassador Program, Online Drinking Water Concern System, and Focus on Water Initiative. Those programs support learning, listening, equitable solutions, and collaboration at the state and local levels.
Among other significant water protections:
∫ EGLE’s work helped drive dramatic reductions in Huron River PFAS levels — including declines of as much as 99.8% over 18 months in one sampling location — through work with local stakeholders to track contamination and address it at the source.
∫ We reached the milestone of bringing all major Michigan urban areas under Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits, which establish a system of roads, drains, pipes and ditches, etc., to transport stormwater to local water bodies separate from local sewer systems. Separating stormwater and sewer systems curbs storm-related sewage overflows, which contribute to beach closings, mass algae blooms, and other harmful impacts to Michigan waterways.
∫ A new general permit for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) was established this year to better protect Michigan waterways from animal waste runoff (also linked to algal blooms, beach closings, and other impacts). That permit is facing a legal challenge, but we are steadfast in our commitment to sustainable agriculture and clean water.
∫ We assisted the Water Use Advisory Council, a formal state stakeholder group, in drafting its 2020 biennial report, which provides state agencies and lawmakers a roadmap for strengthening the state’s Water Use Program.
∫ EGLE piloted a Coastal Leadership Academy for local decision-makers dealing with coastal hazards, such as erosion and flooding from major storms.
As I say often to our EGLE team, our mission is simple, but our work is hard. My time here makes me appreciate even more the work of our dedicated staff and the challenges that we overcome.
In the past year, we assisted thousands of individuals impacted by historic high-water levels, navigated the chaos of a pandemic while continuing to provide essential health and environmental protections, and maintained our diligence in reviewing thousands of permit applications to ensure they complied with state law — even when those decisions were controversial.
We’re excited to build on those fresh initiatives, to push hard to make progress on cleaner water and less carbon pollution, and to work with the governor and legislators to provide us the right tools to reach those goals.
Our children and grandchildren are depending on it.
Liesl Clark is director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.