On July 5, as temperatures rose and Ann Arborites flocked to the river to spend their day on the water, they were met with a disappointing development. A sanitary sewer main break occurred that morning causing sewage to enter a storm pipe and empty into the river. City officials managed to repair the pipe break relatively quickly, but there were still roughly 3,000 gallons of raw sewage that managed to enter the water. This sewage leak could affect several species that live in the river, as well as summer activities.

This local destruction of waterways prompted me to think about how precious Michigan’s water really is. After years of enduring the Flint Water Crisis, some families still do not have access to clean water. In 2019, there are still pipes sending lead tainted water to people’s homes, although the city of Flint is thankfully approaching the issue with efficiency and replacement strategies in order to eradicate any remaining lead pipes. It is baffling to me that people in Michigan are still unable to access freshwater due to unsafe water sources and political decisions. A state known for its immense amount of freshwater access due to the beloved Great Lakes cannot even provide safe drinking water to its own people.      

My most fond memories of growing up in Michigan are trips up north and days spent on lakes. My out-of-state friends always point out that us Michiganders talk about up north a great deal. I have found it acts as our safe haven. We yearn to road trip upstate to bask in the sun, spot the glittering expanses of freshwater, dive into clear rivers. After the sewage outbreak and the heartbreaking state of Flint, how can we be sure that Michigan’s beloved water will remain unaffected by man-made issues? I want to know that there are people that support our state’s beauty and nature. I want to see actions that prove there are defenders of the Great Lakes and the waters that we call home.      

Thankfully, protectors of our waters do exist: in the form of local advocates and in the form of the renowned non-profit Clean Water Action. Clean Water Action has offices around the country, spreading their mission in hopes that climate change and human mistakes will not destroy our country’s water resources. In Michigan, there are three offices, including one in Ann Arbor, that canvas around several different townships. Their mission is straightforward and action-based. It states that they strive “To protect our environment, health, economic well-being and community quality of life. They also state some initiatives for a clean future: “Get health-harming toxics out of everyday products; protect our water from dirty energy threats — drilling and fracking for oil and gas, and power plant pollution; build a future of clean water and clean energy; keep our clean water laws strong and effective to protect water and health.” Their drive to get legislation passed and spread the information through canvassing is beneficial to promoting environmental change. 

Meredith Gillies, program manager of the Clean Water Action Ann Arbor branch, weighed in on the importance of getting their message across to the local community. Gillies said, “Polluters in Michigan are not required to pay for any cleanup of the contamination that they cause unless the state proves they are responsible in court … The legislation we are advocating for would reverse the burden of proof, requiring polluters to prove they are not responsible for the release of hazardous substances in order to avoid paying for cleanup. It would also increase cleanup standards to ensure that our natural resources are protected.” These companies are causing the most harm yet still reaping rewards by not having to pay for cleanup. Her insider perspective helps to provide a complete picture of the faults of polluters in Michigan. 

Clean Water Action are supporters of keeping Michigan waters clean through eco-conscious legislation. Through their Michigan dedicated articles, I learned about the detrimental factors specifically in the state of Michigan that could affect our water systems greatly. For example, climate change causes an increase in stormwater runoff into the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, our state does not have the correct environmental infrastructure in place to manage this issue. An even more shocking fact is that Michigan “remains the only state in the United States that lacks a statewide septic code, and as a consequence, 25 to 30 percent of our 1.4 million septic systems statewide are failing and leaking more raw and untreated sewage into our groundwater,” highlighting a need for new policy considerations. Michigan law-makers, politicians and citizens should all be supporting Clean Water Action’s important work if they believe in a human right to clean water. Their valuable canvassing and campaigning has the potential to help generations to come by adjusting Michigan’s infrastructure to the rising effects of climate change.

It is vital that we keep our freshwaters clean and free from corporate harm and man-made destruction. Through efforts to help residents of Flint, workers at Clean Water Action and supporters of waterway protection, our source of life will hopefully be preserved across the entire country. Water access should not be solely about politics and lobbying, but these actions are what provide clear change in the way that states and water systems are run. If we can set aside political affectations, we can come together to support the universal need of clean water. 

Anne Else can be reached at aelse@umich.edu.


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