Tag: great lakes

Shaping Niagara Falls: Engineers, Hydropower, and Sustainability

Contemporary Aerial View of Niagara Falls (American Falls to the left, Horseshoe Falls to the right). Photo by author.

By Daniel Macfarlane

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the temporary turning off in 1969 of the American Falls, the smaller of the main cataracts at Niagara Falls. There was a precedent for this bold move: In the 1950s, engineers had re-plumbed the much larger Horseshoe Falls, shrinking it and diverting the majority of the water before it plunged over the precipice. All this may not seem very “green” — but the point was primarily to funnel water to hydropower stations. Thus, the modern history of Niagara Falls raises some interesting questions about what sustainability looks like in the Great Lakes basin.

Let’s jump back a bit. After decades of failed diplomatic agreements to remake Niagara Falls, in 1950 the United States and Canada finally inked the Niagara River Diversion Treaty. This accord authorized the binational construction, with International Joint Commission (IJC) oversight, of the International Niagara Control Works. These remedial works consisted of various weirs, dams, excavations, and fills, designed to facilitate greater hydro-electric production (and diminish the erosion that annually moved the Falls upstream 3-7 feet) by diverting the majority of the water destined for the Falls. Indeed, depending on the time of day and season, either half or three-quarters of the river flow is diverted around the waterfall via massive tunnels to hydropower stations.

GIS image showing past crestlines, and rate of recession (in years), at the Horseshoe Falls. Map created by Jason Glatz and Daniel Macfarlane.

Stealing most of the water from the waterfall would obviously harm its scenic appeal, as well as the local tourism economy. Thus, the engineers from both nations simultaneously sought ways to use the aforementioned remedial works, based on scale models, to “beautify” Niagara Falls by reshaping the curtain of water as it dropped over the brink so that it would at least give the “impression of volume” (and reduce the mist and spray that had led to many visitor complaints).  For example, the crestline of the Horseshoe Falls was chiseled out and shrunk by 355 feet; parts of these crest fills were fenced and landscaped to provide prime public vantage points (such as Terrapin Point).

Work on the Canadian flank of the Horseshoe Falls in the 1950s. Used with the permission of Ontario Power Generation.

With the Horseshoe Falls facelift accomplished, a campaign began in the mid-1960s to address the “unsightly” talus (the rock that gathered at the base of the American Falls). In 1967, Canada and the United States asked the IJC to investigate and report on measures necessary to preserve or enhance the beauty of the American Falls, specifically with regard to the talus. In 1969 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shut off the American Falls for about half a year (see the images, as well as this video). The outright removal of the 280,000 cubic yards of talus was considered, as was the placement of a dam downstream from the Falls that would drown the talus. But the engineers concluded that the talus was probably propping up the face of the waterfall. Based on this, as well as an estimated cost of approximately $26 million and uncertainly that the public would actually notice if the talus was gone, in the mid-1970s the IJC decided to keep the talus

The American Falls dewatered in 1969. Used with the permission of the Niagara Falls Public Library (NY).

Dewatered talus at the American Falls. Used with the permission of the Niagara Falls Public Library (NY).

The IJC admirably noted that it seemed “wrong to make the Falls static and unnatural, like an artificial waterfall in a garden or a park” and added that “man should not interfere with the natural process.” Of course, making the Falls “like an artificial waterfall” is precisely what technocrats had done in previous decades. Moreover, the dewatering provided an opportunity to stabilize the rock face of the American Falls with bolts and cables, and install electronic rockslide sensors. In the following years, other major engineering modifications were also performed on Luna Island and Terrapin Point.

Thus, even though additional major interventions were disavowed, representing a major conceptual shift, Niagara Falls had nonetheless already been heavily manipulated. This natural spectacle was, in many ways, decidedly unnatural.

I am personally conflicted about the history of Niagara Falls, specifically, and the role of engineered solutions and big technology in general. To my mind, claims that technology is the answer to our environmental problems seem to conveniently forget that technology is all too often the very cause of the problems. I can’t deny that the engineers have done a very impressive job with Niagara Falls. You could certainly argue that the end result was a compromise that provided a societal good – i.e., sufficient preservation of the scenic beauty coupled with electricity generation.

However, it feels unethical. Moreover, the engineering of famous landmarks like Niagara Falls gives license to messing with any natural system, feeding our technological hubris. Moreover, in recent years it has become apparent that hydroelectricity is not nearly as environmentally benign as has often been touted. In addition to the enormous impacts on the riverine ecosystems and the organisms that count on it for habitat, large reservoirs emit methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The American Falls in 2019. Photo by the author.

An energy system like that of Niagara Falls relies on expensive and elaborate infrastructure, along with the extreme manipulation of a waterfall and river – this system would quickly break down and cease to work without constant upkeep, maintenance, and intervention. Can that really be considered sustainable? I’m convinced that the only real long-term sustainable solution will be drastically reducing our society’s energy consumption. Renewable energy and sustainable energy are not necessarily the same thing.

Niagara’s history represents the traditional “hard path” approach to water: a focus on supply-side options, particularly enormous and capital-intensive infrastructure. But sustainable water policies and infrastructure will need to follow the “soft path,” which entails smaller and localized sources, as well as consideration of the water-energy nexus, and water policies and laws based on public trust, water as a commons, and right-to-water principles.

Daniel Macfarlane is an Associate Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. His research and teaching focus on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, and he is the author or co-editor of several books, including authorship of a forthcoming book about the history of modifying Niagara Falls. He has written about Niagara Falls in numerous other academic publications, as well as in Slate, The Washington Post, and Toronto Star, which can be accessed here.

Reflections on Independence – Liberty, Water, and the Public Trust Doctrine

By Jim Olson

July is “Public Trust Month” at FLOW, a time to gather views and inspiration from people from all walks of life who live, use, enjoy, or depend on the waters of the Great Lakes Basin for life, recreation, and livelihood.

This is because FLOW’s mission is to assure that decisions and actions that affect the Great Lakes are undertaken in the framework of ancient principles, embedded in our law as deep as the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them. These principles, known as the public trust doctrine, recognize the duty of government as trustee to protect, and the rights of the public as beneficiaries to enjoy, these public trust waters and their paramount public nature and uses from one generation to the next.

On July 4, my wife Judy and I hosted a large family picnic at our house in Benzie County. After enjoying the food and multiple conversations going on at once, some of us, with pant legs rolled up above the knees, found ourselves wading in the Platte River with several grandchildren. Watching them totter and frolic in the fast current—their ages ranging from 3 to 23—I had this thought: Liberty includes the gift of freedom to enjoy public trust waters like the Platte River, here in Michigan, and the Great Lakes, and waters throughout the United States and beyond. The public trust in our water resources is a principle that protects and passes on this gift from one generation to the next.

The public trust doctrine is often traced from the Justinian Code 1,600 years ago: “By the law of Nature, these things are common to [humankind]: the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shore of the sea.”  The doctrine reappeared in 1215 in that “Great Charter of Liberty,” the Magna Carta, to restore the custom and rights of the people to access to the rivers and sea for food and sustenance.

On July 4, 1976, the Declaration of Independence declared:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The U.S. Constitution was adopted and ratified between 1787 and 1788, and not long after, the Bill of Rights  in 1791 declared that no government—federal, state, or local—can deprive a person of the right to “life, liberty, and property” or “other rights [not listed] retained by the people.”

In 1821, in the first of a long line of decisions adopted in similar form as the common law of the people by the courts of every state, the Supreme Court of New Jersey nullified an attempt by a landowner to exclude the public from the seabeds, navigable waters, and their near shores because these waters and special lands were public common property held in a public trust for the benefit of all citizens of a state.

In 1892, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the public trust doctrine in the navigable waters, the soils under them, and the shoreline below the high water mark. An influential railroad company hoodwinked a compliant Illinois legislature into granting it almost one square mile of Lake Michigan for a private industrial complex. This didn’t sit well with Illinois residents, especially those who lived in Chicago, and the next session of the legislature repealed the grant.  The company, of course, notified the state that it was too late; they owned the bottomlands and waters of Lake Michigan.

The Supreme Court rejected the company’s claim, and in a landmark decision ruled that the grant to a private company or person was void because the special common public waters and lands owned and held by the states in public trust were “inalienable”! This means that no government can pass a law that deprives a citizen of the inalienable rights, as beneficiary of the public trust, to enjoy and use these waters and special trust lands for fishing, navigating, boating, swimming, bathing, and sustenance—drinking water and growing food.

Imagine that, an inalienable right derived from Roman law, the Magna Carta, and English common law came down to this country because of the “inalienable rights” covered by the Declaration of Independence and American Revolution, and that this “inalienable right” is protected by the public trust doctrine. It is a right that cannot be taken away or repealed, and it is protected by the rights to “life, liberty, and property” and the “other rights of the people” in our Constitution! 

Today, courts around the country are recognizing that the rights of citizens to an individual and indivisible right under the public trust doctrine fall within our “life, liberty, and property” protected by our Constitution.

Talk about a gift for all of us to celebrate during the afterglow of Independence Day and throughout FLOW’s “Public Trust Month” of July. This is one to be thankful for, exercise, and protect for ourselves, our children, grandchildren, and all future generations.

Jim Olson is FLOW’s founder and president. 

The Changing Great Lakes: Living with Fluctuating Water Levels

High Lake Michigan water levels have overwhelmed popular beaches, such as this one at East Bay Park at the base of East Grand Traverse Bay. Photo by Holly Wright.

By Dave Dempsey and Jim Olson

This spring, water levels on all five of the Great Lakes have reached, or are approaching, record highs. The result of unusually high winter and spring precipitation, increased winter ice cover and reduced evaporation, these new highs are the latest in a never-ending series of Great Lakes level fluctuations. The levels have typically fluctuated by as much as 7 feet in recent geologic times. However, studies show that climate change is causing or contributing to more rapid swings between high and low water levels. Just six years ago, Great Lakes levels were below normal, and in some portions of the Great Lakes watershed, citizens clamored for new underwater structures to hold back water in an attempt to boost upstream water artificially.

Now the problem is high water, which creates several concerns:

  • The residences of lakeshore property owners may be at risk of foundational erosion, flooding and even toppling into the lake.
  • Coastal infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, is vulnerable to erosion damage and destruction.
  • Public access to the shoreline may be limited, both because of inundation of prime publicly-owned coastal land and because high water will intrude beyond the ordinary or naturalhigh-water mark, the limit of access adjacent to private property.
  • Taxpayers may be asked to pay the bill for erosion control, moving of structures away from the lake, and/or damages.

In a recent article published in The Conversation (an online magazine devoted to “academic rigor and journalistic flair”), University of Michigan scientists Drew Gronewald and Richard Rood  say they “believe rapid transitions between extreme high and low water levels in the Great Lakes represent the ‘new normal.’ Our view is based on interactions between global climate variability and the components of the regional hydrological cycle. Increasing precipitation, the threat of recurring periods of high evaporation, and a combination of both routine and unusual climate events – such as extreme cold air outbursts – are putting the region in uncharted territory.”

Supporting their observations, water levels have also tumbled dramatically in the last several decades. In 1998-99, the water levels of Lakes Michigan and Huron dropped 25 inches in 12 months.

The public often asks whether governments can do something to raise or lower levels. But the fact is that human engineering can do little in this regard. While there are laws for setting or modifying inland lake levels, increasing outflow from one lake to the next often has a ripple effect downstream. The problem will only worsen with increased precipitation and water levels now experienced in the Great Lakes region. Similarly, manipulation of water level control structures to address lower water levels can, in turn, lower any one of the lakes only a few inches. Only one percent of the volume of the Great Lakes flows out of the system annually. Far bigger influences are precipitation and evaporation.

Members of the public also ask whether they can still walk the beach when water levels are above the ordinary or high-water mark that defines the boundary between state ownership and private riparian ownership. As a practical matter, the public should still be able to enjoy a right to walk the beach and shores of the Great Lakes—provided it is safe—so long as they remain in the zone along the water’s edge that is wet or compacted by recent wave and other natural forces of nature.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) observes, “Unlike oceans, where tides are constant and predictable, water levels on the Great Lakes can vary significantly in frequency and magnitude making them difficult to accurately predict.” A US-Canada treaty body, the IJC is responsible for maintaining control structures at Sault Ste. Marie, Niagara Falls and the meeting point of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

A popular misconception is that warming temperatures associated with climate change will significantly lower Great Lakes water levels. But the effect of climate change on these levels is unclear. Warmer air holds more moisture, leading to an increasing number of heavy rain and snow storms. In fact, some models predict rising Great Lakes levels as a result of climate change.

To minimize our contribution to climate change and to protect our Great Lakes ecosystem, we should reduce our use of fossil fuels and we should push our elected leaders to act on climate change. However, given that human effort can do relatively little to alter quickly-changing Great Lakes water levels, adaptation should be our societal response.

Resources

Great Lakes water level update, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Great Lakes water levels, International Joint Commission

Great Lakes Water Levels and Related Data, Government of Canada

Jim Olson is founder and president of FLOW; Dave Dempsey is senior advisor.

The Public Trust and YOU

“The Great Lakes belong to all of us. It’s in our DNA,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “We know that those waters that surround us, that bathe us, that nurture us underneath our feet, are inalienable rights for all.”

During this high-water month of July, FLOW will publish video postcards each weekday that feature Michiganders (and citizens of the Great Lakes Basin) explaining what the Public Trust Doctrine means to us and how our precious, publicly-owned fresh water shapes our lives and relationship to this place we call home.

“We chose July because this is the height of summer and the connections people have with our waters,” added Kirkwood. “This is an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to the Great Lakes and think about what stewardship really means. What will we do to make sure these waters are protected for our children and our children’s children?”

At its core, the Public Trust is a set of legal principles establishing the public right to our natural resources. It also establishes the government’s responsibility to protect public health and public rights to use those natural resources. Our goal is to increase everyday awareness about the Public Trust and make it feel less like a legal term and more like an existential code by which we all live.

We saw the Public Trust Doctrine in action last week when the State of Michigan and Attorney General Dana Nessel took the important step of defending the Great Lakes by suing Enbridge and alleging that its occupation of Line 5 violates the Public Trust.

“When Michigan and other states joined this country, the states took title to all navigable waters and the soils beneath them like the Great Lakes in trust for the benefit of its citizens,” said Jim Olson, FLOW president and founder and nationally recognized expert on public trust law. “This means the State has a duty to protect these waters, soils, natural resources, and the rights and uses of citizens from one generation to the next.

“Every citizen is a legally recognized beneficiary for use and enjoyment of these public trust resources for fishing, boating, drinking water, bathing, swimming, and other recreational activities. Governments and private persons cannot interfere with, impair, dispose of or alienate these public trust resources or preferred public rights and uses.”

Olson underscored the importance of the Public Trust Doctrine and its principles at this time in history.

“Whether oil pipelines in the Great Lakes, toxic algae and ‘dead zones’ in Lake Erie, Green Bay, or along Sleeping Bear Dunes, the sale and private control of public water, changes in water levels, erosion, flooding and damage to piers, docks, roads, water infrastructure from global warming and climate climate, the public trust in our waters offers all of us a path forward to address the existing damage and threats, and the world water and climate crisis. When government fails or others refuse to change, citizens have the right to enforce the law to protect their rights and the common good of the community, and their children and grandchildren.”

Our Public Trust video postcards this month will feature everyone from a U.S. Senator and a state Attorney General, to leading environmental advocates, to poets and dancers, to boaters and fishermen, to everyday citizens recreating, beach walking and swimming in their public waters. Through these videos, we hope to empower citizens, educate people about beach access rights, discuss the importance of protecting our groundwater, and reinforce the importance of protecting our freshwater in the age of Climate Change.

On the Fourth of July, we’ll also unveil an online “Public Trust Passport” that you can view, download or print, and use as a handy guide to learn more about your freshwater recreation rights.

Stay tuned to FLOW’s social media feed to learn why Sen. Gary Peters loves backpacking at Isle Royal National Park, why poet Anne-Marie Oomen loves to paddleboard, why toddler Judah Heitman digs swimming and kayaking, and the lifelong resonance of fly fishing with her father on the Boardman River for dancer Sarah Wolff.

Actress Amy Smart and writer and producer Geoff Johns urge Michigan Gov. Whitmer to protect our Great Lakes and shut down ‘Line 5’

 


Actress Amy Smart and comic book writer, screenwriter, and film and television producer Geoff Johns urge Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to protect our Great Lakes and shut down Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.


Amy: Hi, I’m Amy Smart.

Geoff: Hi, I’m Geoff Johns.

Amy: And we’re here to urge you, Governor Whitmer. We’re so excited that you are the governor of Michigan, and we’re so excited that you believe in the Great Lakes and keeping them clean. We both grew up — you grew up in Michigan.

Geoff: I grew up in Michigan. I have a lot of family still in Michigan. I love Michigan, and Michigan is known for its lakes. It’s the Great Lakes State, and there is nothing more important than those lakes to the whole state and the people in it.

Amy: Yes, nothing more important. I now am a resident of Michigan, and we really need your leadership more than anything to shut down Pipeline 5. It’s way too risky, and it would be completely catastrophic if anything happened, so it’s urgent right now that you do that. We also would highly recommend not letting Enbridge build a tunnel because we don’t need any oil problems in our lakes at all.

Geoff: We don’t want to risk it, and we know you’re in a really tough situation right now, but we ask you to please use your judgment and make the right call. Thank you!

Amy: Thank you!


A ‘Line 5’ Oil Tunnel Won’t Protect the Great Lakes from Enbridge, Climate Change

Above: FLOW’s Liz Kirkwood speaking in opposition to a proposed oil tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac, during a November 8, 2018, hearing in St. Ignace.


In the world of public relations, there are facts, exaggerations, and untruths. Right now, Enbridge is bombarding the people of Michigan with hazy PR claims that it has safely operated the Line 5 oil pipelines in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac for the last 66 years.

The Canadian energy pipeline giant, however, conveniently fails to tell the public that it has allowed the pipelines to deteriorate badly, bending and grinding on the lake bottom in the fierce currents. Enbridge also neglects to mention that on April Fools’ Day 2018, Line 5 threatened to dump its oil into the Great Lakes when a tugboat anchor struck, and risked breaching, the underwater pipelines. 

Rather than seizing on this near-disaster to decommission the decaying pipeline infrastructure built in 1953, the Snyder administration instead spent its final eight months in office cementing a private pact with Enbridge. The backroom deal would leave Line 5 vulnerable to another anchor strike or rupture for up to a decade while Enbridge explores the feasibility of building an oil tunnel under the Straits.

Michigan’s new attorney general, Dana Nessel, in late March correctly determined that the tunnel law passed hastily in the waning days of the 2018 lame-duck legislature was unconstitutional. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer later that same day directed all state departments to halt work on tunnel permitting. But Gov. Whitmer’s recent opening of negotiations with Enbridge seeking to speed up the stalled tunnel process contradicts her own directive and circumvents a transparent public process.

Trying to hasten a bad idea won’t make it any better. While seeking to revive Snyder’s 99-year tunnel deal with Enbridge risks undermining Gov. Whitmer’s own goal to combat climate change risks and impacts.

And Enbridge and the former Snyder administration’s claims that the proposed oil tunnel would serve a public purpose by also housing electrical and other utilities is a ruse that masks an enormous risk of explosion, as experts advising FLOW determined in prior research.  

Just today, in fact, an electrical supplier to the Upper Peninsula – American Transmission Company or “ATC” – issued a letter indicating that it has no intention of running its 138,000-volt electric lines through the proposed oil tunnel. “A tunnel of uncertain timing, later in the decade, does not serve the public,” the letter stated. “ATC does not believe that installing high voltage electric lines in close proximity to high pressure oil or gas lines is a good idea.”

It’s never been clearer that Enbridge is pretending there’s a public purpose to their private oil tunnel in order to gain access to the public waters and bottomlands of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act requires there be a “public purpose,” no impairment or interference with fishing and other public trust uses and rights of citizens and communities, and a showing of no feasible and prudent alternative for transporting Canadian oil back to Canada. The state of Michigan must restore the rule of law and transparency by requiring Enbridge to apply to build a tunnel in the Straits under the law, not negotiate occupancy of public bottomlands behind closed doors.

The real solution to the Line 5 threat must protect the Great Lakes, which define Michigan, drive our economy, and provide drinking water to half the state’s population. Gov. Whitmer must heed her campaign promise to shut down Line 5, while implementing a common-sense backup plan for propane transport in the Upper Peninsula using truck, train, or a small new pipe that doesn’t cross the Straits of Mackinac.

Let’s cut through Enbridge’s PR-fog and get the facts straight. Line 5 is not vital energy infrastructure for Michigan. More than 90 percent of the oil in Line 5 comes from and flows back to Canada.

Not only does Enbridge lack adequate insurance to cover the impacts of a catastrophic spill estimated from $1.87 billion to as much as $45 billion, the company’s oil spill response plan was held to be inadequate in late March by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director

Enbridge’s dismal track record is underscored by its 2010 Line 6B Kalamazoo River disaster – known as the largest inland tar sands oil spill in U.S. history – and extends to Line 5, which has leaked in total over a million gallons of oil in Michigan and Wisconsin from at least 33 known spills since 1968.

Infrastructure needs abound in Michigan – ranging from our failing drinking water and wastewater infrastructure to the aging Soo Locks and a long-term clean energy plan for the U.P and the state as a whole.  Let’s shut down Line 5 and create jobs focused on those real needs, instead of protecting Enbridge’s private interest in our public waters.


FLOW Praises Governor for Action on Line 5


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:                                                                      March 28, 2019

Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director                                                   Email: Liz@FLOWforWater.org
Office: (231) 944-1568, Cell: (570) 872-4956                                           Web: www.FLOWforWater.org

Jim Olson, FLOW Founder and President                                                Email: olson@envlaw.com
(231) 499-8831 

Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor                                                     Email: dave@FLOWforWater.org
(612) 703-2720


In the wake of an opinion by Attorney General Dana Nessel invalidating a law that sought to give away Great Lakes public trust bottomlands to Enbridge for 99 years for a private oil tunnel, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has now ordered state agencies to pause permitting on Line 5, an action hailed by FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City.

“We welcome the Governor’s swift, prudent action to halt the legal effect of the law and tunnel and side agreements,” said Jim Olson, founder and president of FLOW. “Now, it’s time to bring the existing perilous Line 5 in the Straits under rule of law and decommission it as quickly as possible.”

“The backroom deals creating Enbridge’s proposed oil tunnel couldn’t survive public scrutiny, and now we know they can’t survive the rule of law,” said Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director of FLOW. “It’s time to focus on Michigan’s true energy future and protect Michigan’s Great Lakes and our economy from a Line 5 pipeline rupture. The path forward for Michigan is for Gov. Whitmer to immediately begin the process of decommissioning Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.”


What Everyone Should Know About the Great Lakes


Freshwater Facts

  • Only freshwater will sustain human life.
  • About 97% of the water on earth is salt water.
  • Of the remaining fraction of approximately 3% that is freshwater, over 98% is locked in ice caps, glaciers and groundwater.
  • Of the remaining fraction of about 1.2% of all freshwater, about .25% is found at the surface in lakes and streams.
  • The Great Lakes contain almost 20% of that .25% – one-fifth of all available surface freshwater in the world.[1]

Great Lakes Volume and Transit Facts

  • The Great Lakes contain 95% of the surface water volume of the United States.
  • The Great Lakes contain 84% of the surface water volume of North America.
  • Only 1% of the volume of the Great Lakes is renewed annually from precipitation and runoff; the water balance of the Lakes is delicate.
  • The average drop of water takes 173 years to pass through Lake Superior.
  • The average drop of water takes 204 years to pass from Lake Superior to the ocean.

Other Facts

  • Spread evenly across the 48 contiguous states, the Great Lakes would turn the U.S. into a swimming pool 9.5 feet deep.
  • There are approximately 35,000 islands in the Great Lakes, including the largest lake island in the world, Manitoulin.
  • There are about 10,900 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, 200 miles less than the distance between Detroit and Perth, Australia.
  • Measured by surface area, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Huron is third, Lake Michigan is fourth, Lake Erie is tenth and Lake Ontario is twelfth.
  • Lake Superior could contain all the other Great Lakes plus three more lakes the size of Lake Erie

This list is just one idea; experts can and do have their own lists, many based on extensive grounding in science and/or environmental education.


[1]You will find slightly different figures in different sources, demonstrating the inexactness of much of our knowledge about the Great Lakes.  The Great Lakes Information Network (https://www.glc.org/lakes/) pegs the total at about one-fifth, US EPA (https://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/great-lakes-facts-and-figures) at about 21%, and Environment and Climate Change Canada (https://www.ec.gc.ca/grandslacs-greatlakes/default.asp?lang=En&n=3F5214D0-1) says it’s 18%.


Michigan Groundwater Policy: A History

Over 100 Years of Contamination

Groundwater contamination in Michigan reaches back over a century. For example, the Antrim Iron Works in Mancelona in 1910 began discharging residues of chemicals recovered from its charcoal production process to an on-site depression that gradually released wastes to groundwater. Although the plant closed in 1944, extensive contamination lingered for generations. By 1960, a plume of groundwater contamination at the site was estimated to be three miles long and a half-mile wide. Placed on the national Superfund list in 1982, the Tar Lake site remains contaminated despite excavation of some soils and pumping of groundwater. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined additional soil excavation and expanded groundwater treatment was required.

Despite lessons learned from widespread contamination of surface water in the mid-20thCentury, policies of Michigan and many other states failed to expand groundwater protections. In a 1963 report, the U.S. Geological Survey noted, “Pollution of rivers and streams, especially in southern Michigan, has placed many communities and other water users in the ironic position of having available adequate quantities of surface water, but of a quality unfit for most uses. Similar pollution of ground water must be avoided.” Instead, as federal and state laws forced cleanup of surface waters, groundwater contamination accelerated.

The staff of the Michigan Water Resources Commission was sufficiently concerned in 1958 to propose a regulation requiring “all toxic and offensive wastes…shall be rendered innocuous by adequate treatment or by sufficient dilution before being permitted to enter the ground.” To support the proposal, the staff provided a list of 16 groundwater pollution sites. Despite this, the Commission tabled the proposed rule.

The emergency evacuation of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York in 1978 because of buried chemical wastes brought public attention to the crisis of contaminated groundwater. Congress passed the federal Superfund law, intended to fund cleanup of the worst sites, in 1980, enabling states to inventory and request cleanup assistance. Michigan submitted a list of over 80 sites, the second most of any state. But the full inventory was staggering. The tally included 63 sites that were fouling drinking water supplies, 649 sites of known or suspected groundwater contamination, and an estimated 50,000 sites with contamination potential. The more state authorities looked, the more contamination they found.

The passage of a solid waste management law in 1978 and a hazardous waste management law in 1979 curbed two of the principal threats to groundwater – landfills and spills of hazardous waste materials. In 1980, the department of natural resources finally promulgated the groundwater discharge rules the water resources commission had set aside in 1958. Regulations affecting petroleum storage in underground storage tanks that took effect in the late 1980s closed another loophole in groundwater protection. But it was too late to prevent many unnecessary health risks, an enormous cleanup bill to taxpayers, and a legacy of groundwater abuse that persists in widespread contamination.

Contaminated Sites and Sacrifice Zones

In 1995, Governor John Engler and the Legislature delivered another blow to groundwater. They removed from state law the presumption that polluted groundwater should be cleaned. One result is a long list of “sacrifice zones,” or sites where groundwater use is restricted or prohibited. In many locations, rather than attempting to clean up contaminated groundwater, the parties who own or seek to redevelop contaminated sites are allowed to leave the contaminants in place and instead work with the state to restrict access to it. An analogous policy for surface water would be to bar use of or access to polluted rivers and lakes – something the public would likely not tolerate.

State law sanctions two types of contaminated site exposure controls — restrictive covenants, which run with an individual property and bar certain uses of contaminated property, and institutional controls. Controls typically restrict uses on multiple properties and can affect large zones of groundwater. They include local ordinances or state laws and regulations that limit or prohibit the use of contaminated groundwater, prohibit the raising of livestock, prohibit development in certain locations, or restrict property to certain uses.

As of mid-February 2018, DEQ records showed 3,394 land use restrictions at contaminated sites across the state. Nearly 2,000 additional restrictions were on a list to be plotted and mapped. Of the 3,394 restrictions already recorded, 2,355 were restrictions on groundwater use. Some of the groundwater areas affected are several square miles in size. In effect, for the near future, the state has written off these areas of groundwater. Continuation of this approach will foreclose the use of significant groundwater resources by future generations.

Applicable Laws

Today, rather than protecting groundwater as a whole – or water throughout the hydrological cycle – Michigan law emphasizes regulation of categories of pollution sources that affect groundwater. This backward approach to resource protection blinds the state to the overall condition of Michigan’s groundwater – and artificially divides groundwater from the rest of the water cycle. The result is a degraded resource.

Federal laws do not fill the breach. The Clean Water Act does not generally apply to groundwater. The Safe Drinking Water Act provides some funding to states to assist communities in assessing threats to community water supplies, including groundwater supplies and to develop wellhead protection plans. But it does not provide a policy or regulate many groundwater contamination sources.

State law does lay down some groundwater protections. Michigan water quality protections in theory extend to groundwater. As defined in state statute, “Waters of the state” means groundwaters, lakes, rivers, streams, and all other watercourses and waters, including the Great Lakes within Michigan’s boundaries.

Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), Part 327, declares that groundwater and surface water are one single hydrologic system. Groundwater can recharge surface water, and surface water on occasion loses water to and recharges groundwater. The waters of the state should be considered one resource for any groundwater protection regulation or standard. 

Part 327 recognizes water in the Great Lakes basin and in Michigan is held in public trust for the benefit of citizens. This principle should govern every water statute, and any statute regulating activities that protect groundwater, to assure that contaminants do not impair the public trust in connected wetlands, creeks, streams, and lakes, and Great Lakes.

Because land use directly affects groundwater quality, land uses should be managed to protect groundwater quantity and quality, connected surface waters, and the public trust at least in hydrologically connected public trust streams and lakes.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Despite these legal provisions, in practice, Michigan treats groundwater and surface water differently. Drinking water standards apply to water drawn from subsurface sources and cleanup standards apply to contaminated groundwater, but ambient water quality standards do not apply. 

As an out-of-sight, out-of-mind resource, groundwater protection depends on our laws reflecting the science of our interconnected surface and groundwaters. Our laws need to catch up to science so we don’t continue to abuse this precious resource.


FLOW’s Groundwater Awareness Week: What It Is and Why It Matters


Michigan is called the Great Lakes state but is a poor steward of the sixth Great Lake, the water lying beneath Michigan’s ground. During National Groundwater Awareness Week March 10-16, FLOW is calling for state-level reforms to strengthen protection of Michigan’s groundwater.


The Invisible Resource

Groundwater is an immense and invisible resource. The volume of groundwater in the Great Lakes watershed is roughly equal to the volume of Lake Huron. Often overlooked because it is out of sight, Michigan’s groundwater is a giant asset and life-giving resource that fills wells, grows crops, fuels industry, and replenishes the Great Lakes.

This week, we feature content directly related to this resource. FLOW has been investigating Michigan groundwater policies and problems for more than a year. In September 2018, we released a report, The Sixth Great Lake:  The Emergency Threatening Michigan’s Overlooked Groundwater Resource. Our concern and communication continues. 

Our content to be released throughout Groundwater Awareness Week includes an inspiring video narrated by poet and author Anne-Marie Oomen; two podcasts developed by writer and broadcast professional Sally Eisele; blog posts by FLOW experts shining a spotlight on PFAS and other groundwater pollution problems and protective solutions; and a fact sheet summing it all up.

In addition, FLOW is developing a groundwater map for release later this spring making it easy for you to learn about the resource across Michigan and in your region of the state.

Why Is Groundwater Important?

Michigan has more private drinking water wells than any other state. About 45% of the state’s population depends on groundwater as its drinking water source. Michigan industries withdraw 64 million gallons of groundwater daily from on-site wells. Over 260 million gallons of groundwater are withdrawn daily in Michigan for irrigation. As much as 42% of the water in the Great Lakes originates from groundwater.

For a resource so vital to human health and the economy, Michigan’s groundwater is shabbily treated in both policy and practice. Of the 50 states, only Michigan lacks a statewide law protecting groundwater from septic systems – and there are an estimated 130,000 leaking septic systems within Michigan’s borders. Other major threats include an estimated 6,000 contamination sites for which no private or public funding is available and widespread nitrate contamination from agricultural practices.

What Is Groundwater?

The hydrologic cycle governs water movement. Surface water is heated by the sun and evaporates into the atmosphere, forming clouds. These clouds condense and precipitation falls back to Earth as rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Water will then either return to a surface body of water or seep into the soil and move through the crust as groundwater.

Some may envision groundwater as an underground river or lake, but groundwater is held in tiny pore spaces in the rock and soil. After water is absorbed into the ground, gravity pulls the water down through the unsaturated zone. This area of the Earth’s crust is where tiny gaps between sediment grains, called pore spaces, are filled with either air or water. Water here can be trapped and used by plant roots or percolate downward into the saturated zone, where water exclusively fills the pore spaces.

The division between the unsaturated and saturated zone is called the water table. This two-dimensional plane often follows the contours of the surface above, moving seasonally based on precipitation events.

Groundwater in the saturated zone moves both vertically and horizontally, flowing towards a lower elevation discharge point like a stream or a lake. These surface bodies of water often rely on groundwater sources, in addition to precipitation, to recharge their water levels. After re-entering a surface body of water, the water continues through the hydrologic cycle.

As groundwater moves through the surface of the Earth, it often travels through an aquifer. Aquifers are underground formations that contain water at high enough concentrations that we can sustainably pump.

The two types of aquifers are called confined and unconfined aquifers, differing in whether or not there is an impermeable layer between the surface and the aquifer or not. Both types of aquifer can be used as a freshwater source, but unconfined aquifers are much more easily affected by surface actions and contamination and are more susceptible to pollution and degradation.

Almost all groundwater will discharge into surface water, unless it is extracted first. As a result, contaminated groundwater can degrade lakes, streams, and the Great Lakes.