Timothy Spurlin: State of the Great Lakes

Thursday, January 10, 2019 - 11:33am

For a state known as the “Great Lakes State,” the current state of water in Michigan is terribly concerning.

Growing up in Grand Rapids, some of my favorite memories are from when my family and I would pack up chairs, snacks, books and toys. We would drive west until we reached towns like Holland or Grand Haven and spend the whole day on the white sands of Lake Michigan. This was probably the setting where my interest in the environment was planted inside me. It is an emotional sentiment that has grown over the years and I always feel happy thinking about looking out onto the expanse of blue waves along the shore.

The Great Lakes — consisting of Lakes Michigan, Huron, Superior, Ontario and Erie — are the largest bodies of water in the entire world, making up one fifth of the Earth’s total surface freshwater supply. The lakes were formed more than 10,000 years ago from enormous glaciers that melted and molded the landscape into the familiar mitten shape we all know and love. Their size and beauty have earned them nicknames like “the nation’s fourth coast” or “the fresh coast, best coast.” Our entire tourism campaign is based on these images — we’ve all heard the calming voice of Tim Allen on the radio give a picturesque description of our landscape followed by the soothing tagline: "Pure Michigan." Pristine water is woven into the very fabric of Michigan’s identity.

However, a quick Google search about Michigan water would have any reader believe the Great Lakes State is anything but pure. The Flint water crisisAsian carp and other invasive species, the Line 5 oil pipeline debate, the Nestle bottling plant controversy, or the recent frenzy about the PFAS contamination statewide are but a few examples of how environmental issues surrounding our water over the past decade has been less than ideal, and frankly, disheartening.

We need to start taking the cultural weight of water into consideration when having these debates in order to save what has become our most historically significant icon.

Now, these crises are mostly independent of one another and would be tragic no matter where they occur (Minnesota is running into their own pipeline issues with Line 3, and PFAS contaminations are a developing story nationwide). However, there is something uniquely troubling about the bombardment of bad news in association with the state of Michigan water. How can Michigan be the Great Lakes State if we cannot get a handle on our own water?

Take the recent debate about the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline, for example. For those unfamiliar with the story, the abridged version is about how an old pipeline, Line 5, carries large amounts of oil underneath the Mackinac Bridge, through the Upper Peninsula, and then the Straits of Mackinac to Canada, putting the Great Lakes, and our economy, at major risk if there is a spill. This topic was on the front lines of the 2018 Michigan gubernatorial debate, with newly-elected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vowing to take measures to shut down Line 5 on her first day in office. It should be noted that as of Jan. 2 Governor Whitmer announced on Twitter she is honoring this promise and has formally asked Attorney General Dana Nessel for legal options moving forward to shut down Line 5.

Proponents of the pipeline, such as Enbridge and former Gov. Rick Snyder, however, claim that actions such as this would be drastic, and have set up plans to build a tunnel around the pipeline to ease the risk of a potential spill. In the debate over the pipeline, figures and statistics are often thrown around about the economy, cleanup times and insurance plans, all of which are extremely important to consider.

But what if we took into account the cultural significance of a spill as well? Michigan’s blossoming tourism industry would be dealt a fatal blow and thousands would lose their jobs. Furthermore, it would say a great deal about us that we would leave such possibilities up to chance. I find it hard to imagine we could, in good faith, listen to another Pure Michigan ad and pretend the idealistic vision presented is anything close to reality. Is that something we are willing to accept as Michiganders?

2018 was one of the most divisive and contentious years in modern history. The left and the right seem to be slipping farther apart than ever before, and finding issues that can bring us together is more critical than ever in 2019. Water could be one of those issues. While there may be disagreements on how exactly to get there, a future with cleaner water is something everyone from this state should support. If we don’t start standing up for what is truly important to our collective identity now, we may no longer have anything worth championing in the future.

Timothy Spurlin can be reached at timrspur@umich.edu.