In the Great Lakes State, news about proposed changes to federal water treatment regulations made the front page. On Dec. 30, The Detroit News discussed the proposed regulations, which await a final say by the Environmental Protection Agency in February. The changes would allow communities to dump untreated sewage into Michigan’s lakes when heavy rain puts water treatment plants under stress. It sounds like a pretty typical Bush administration idea — a hostile policy with the potential for harming the quality of life of Michigan residents. But guess what? The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments supports it. So does the Michigan Municipal League. How could they be so stupid? As with many of Michgan’s fatal flaws, the answer lies in their continued support for unchecked urban sprawl.
While the use of water treatment facilities in this century took care of the cholera and typhoid epidemics of the last, it seems that history is too soon forgotten. The Detroit News explains that SEMCOG supports disbanding sanitation standards for reasons of cost. Quoting SEMCOG’s figures projecting multi-billion dollar increases in expenses for sewage infrastructure within the next 25 years, the newspaper looked no deeper than the numbers to explain what’s happening. If Michiganders were better informed about the problem, then they’d easily see the solution.
For one thing, SEMCOG’s credibility is no good. The organization, in charge of transportation funding, has been an unconditional proponent of suburban sprawl. On quick inspection, it’s easy to see why this is so. While three representatives from Detroit sit on the council, rural Monroe County gets four. Representation is by no means proportional to population. SEMCOG is unfair by design, and its policies resemble its structure.
Instead of using its tremendous endowment to give all southeast Michiganders access to public transit, SEMCOG supported the construction of new roads further out into rural areas. It has gone to court to defend that position against disabled plaintiffs and older suburbs. It’s scary, and it’s related to the topic at hand.
What do roads and sprawl have to do with water treatment, and why would SEMCOG rather make a sewer out of Lake Erie than pay for treatment at home? That’s easy enough to answer. In a developed area, rainwater becomes harmfully dirty and must be processed before it’s released into lakes and rivers. Since SEMCOG pays for much of the infrastructure that paves the countryside, and its member governments coordinate water treatment, it’s afraid of being locked in a trap. While it refuses to stop supporting sprawl, it’s scared that it won’t be able to pay for it once the six-county area becomes all parking lots and freeways. Poor SEMCOG.
Logic would dictate that citizens should pay the costs of their lifestyle. Unfortunately SEMCOG and the EPA disagree. While their new plan may save the outer suburbs some money, the harm it will do will hurt the whole of Michigan a thousandfold more. In addition to jeopardizing the state’s post-industrial lifeblood — tourism and a good standard of living — it also threatens the entire region’s public health. Instead of digging the region into a hole, SEMCOG and the EPA should re-assess their priorities. Clearly Michigan can’t afford more sprawl. Not at the cost of our most precious resource.
Faichney is an LSA senior and member of the Daily’s editorial board.