By Tom Baird, FLOW Board Member
Once again, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has sacrificed our precious water resources for the profits of a privately owned business and the promise of a couple of low wage jobs. As a result, the waters of the Au Sable River will be seriously polluted, and the risk of harm will be borne by the taxpayers of the state.
On May 1, DEQ Director Heidi Grether issued a final decision upholding a pollution discharge permit for the Grayling Fish Farm on the East Branch of the Au Sable River. In doing so, she has endangered one of the premier fresh water resources in Michigan and violated the state’s duty to hold that resource in the public trust. The Anglers of the Au Sable, which had contested the permit, filed an appeal of Grether’s decision on May 9 in Crawford County Circuit Court.
The Au Sable River is Michigan’s finest blue ribbon trout stream. It is the number one fly fishing destination east of the Mississippi. As such, it is a huge contributor to the region’s tourist economy and to property values in the river valley.
The fish farm, owned by Harrietta Hills of Harrietta, Michigan, is operated in an old fish hatchery built at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and abandoned by the state decades ago. Its last use was as a tourist attraction. It was not designed to be a fish farm, and has no wastewater treatment facility. It is a “flow through” system, meaning that water is diverted from the river, flows through the fish (picking up phosphorus, fish waste and uneaten fish food), and then flows back into the river just upstream from the famed Holy Waters of Au Sable. Essentially, the river is used as a sewer for the fish farm. Portions of the river are fenced off, preventing floating or fishing on that stretch.
The effluent allowed by the permit will cause excessive algae growth, reductions in aquatic invertebrates (the “fish flies” on which the trout depend), reductions in dissolved oxygen, and an increased risk of dreaded Whirling Disease, which is lethal to young trout. The minor modifications of the permit required by Grether will do almost nothing to ameliorate the damages. She did not provide additional limits on discharges; the DEQ will not provide ongoing monitoring; and Harrietta Hills will not be required to post a performance bond.
The pollution will accumulate over time to the serious detriment of the river and the fishery. The fishing will decline. Anglers have choices. Poor fishing means less fishing trips to the area. A resource economist from Michigan State estimates that economic losses to the regional economy due to reduced fishing will be $1.77 to $4.6 million per year. Additional losses will flow from other reductions in recreational uses, and due to reduced property values. In the event of a catastrophe, the taxpayer will likely foot the bill.
The DEQ was created to be “business friendly,” and it has not disappointed: water withdrawals for fracking which dried up the North Branch of the Manistee River, algae blooms in Lake Erie, the Nestles bottled water fiasco, Flint – the list goes on and on.
There will always be those who see ways to make a buck off resources owned by the people. And reasonable use of our resources is fine. But the DEQ has totally abdicated its role as the protector of the public trust in our waters. So it is left to small nonprofit organizations and citizens groups to do what is needed. Consider that at election time, and when you think about which groups to support. It really is up to us.