Water! – Michigan Takes Stock of Growing Issue

Michigan is surrounded by six quadrillion gallons of fresh water, and over 3,000 miles of lake coastline. Because of that, its residents and businesses have been able to build and maintain a diverse state economy of agriculture, tourism, recreation, manufacturing and shipping.

But with severe drought conditions in the southwest and southeastern regions of the country, Michigan lawmakers are keenly aware that the eyes of a thirsty nation are turning towards the Great Lakes as a possible source of fresh water.

Bob McCann, a spokesperson with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, says the bottom line is making sure the water in the Great Lakes is kept in place.

“As soon as state politicians talk about protecting our water, any strain of partisanship blurs,” says McCann. “It isn’t a political issue at that point, but rather, what is best for Michigan.”

Detroit draws water for its drinking supply from Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. It claims to have some of the cleanest tap water in the country and provides water service to neighboring cities and suburbs as far out as Wixom in Oakland County.

The Frankfort Light sits at the entrance of Frankfort’s harbor on Lake Michigan.
Photo by Joe Bomberski

For the most part, lake experts, scientists, politicians and business owners believe that the current low-level conditions are cyclical and historical -“ a result of less rainfall, snow and reduced ice cover. Additionally, some say dredging might be the culprit.

Whatever the reason, it’s hard not to notice the effects. Businesses have been hurt and dried up shorelines are leaving unsightly images for property owners.

“Take a look at Saginaw Bay,” McCann suggests. “As the water goes down, exposed bottomland on people’s property consisting of muck and algae wash up on the shoreline making it difficult to enjoy. That’s just one issue among many.”

Record-setting low lake levels were recorded in 1860, 1925, 1930 and the 1960s. It was the 1980s that saw the Great Lakes swell to historic highs.

One family owning four acres of lakefront property on Lake Michigan found an advantage to their receding shoreline.

Patrick O’ Hearn, who sells real estate in Gaylord, says his family purchased the property in 1959. “Right now we have 300 feet of shoreline giving us the chance to clean up submerged logs and sharp rocks that would interfere with swimming when the levels return.”

The Great Lakes holds 20 percent of the world’s, and 95 percent of the U.S., fresh water supply. Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana draw from them.

Tammy Newcomb, a Lake Huron basin coordinator in the DNR Fisheries Division, says average lake levels for Lake Superior are about 20 inches less than normal. Lake Erie is 71 inches below the record high. Lake Michigan and Huron are 70 inches lower.

Boaters throughout the state have had to deal with the closure of several marinas and unusable docks because of such levels.

“Canadian snowfall dictates how much water comes into the Great Lakes through ground water,” says Newcomb. “It hasn’t been snowing as much in the Canadian areas because of warmer winters, and that means less ice cover and more evaporation.”

The condition of the Great Lakes has become a political rallying point as well. Republican State Senator Patty Birkholz says her priority is protecting Great Lakes water. She chairs the Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs committee, and represents the 24th district for Allegan, Barry and Eaton counties.

“All of the eight Great Lakes states need to adopt the Great Lakes Basin Compact. It’s in committee now and must be unanimously adopted by all regions or it will not become successful. The bill would give a high level of protection against large-scale diversion of our water or withdrawals,” she says.

Along with the auto industry, Birkholz cited Gerber Baby Foods and Similac as examples of Michigan-based businesses needing and using an abundant supply of fresh water in the making of their products.

“Even cherry and apple pie filling have over 50 percent water in those cans, and they use water to wash the fruits beforehand,” says Birkholz, emphasizing the dependency agribusiness has on fresh water.

Republican Congresswoman Candice Miller, who represents Michigan’s 10th district, takes an aggressive stance on protecting the state’s fresh water supply.

“We’ve had very few natural disasters in our state aside from an occasional tornado or major snowstorm, yet we subsidize people to live in areas of the country that are not quite so safe and are not blessed with the abundant resources we have in Michigan,” says Miller.

There are limits to that generosity, she says. “It is drawn on the shores of the Great Lakes. They are our very identity and we will not allow them to be diverted. Not on my watch.”

As a shoreline property owner in Grosse Pointe Shores, Kay Felt became part of a 10-person board for the International Upper Great Lakes Study, and is the U.S. co-chair of the 20-person Public Interest Advisory Group. Each body is equally comprised of U.S. and Canadian residents appointed by the International Joint Commission.

The five-year study will take into consideration a wide range of interests, including ecosystem, environmental and coastal zone concerns; hydropower; municipal, industrial and domestic use; commercial navigation; harbors and marinas, and recreational boating and tourism.

“An interest group from the Georgian Bay region of Canada firmly believes dredging in the St. Clair River has caused a drain hole causing water to drain excessively fast out of the river to Lake Erie. They want some controls put in to slow it down,” Felt says.

The state’s tourism industry has taken hits too, according to Dave Lorenz, manager of public and industry relations for Travel Michigan, part of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

“Michigan, to a great degree, is about fresh water and the Great Lakes as well as the wilderness wonderland. If people think they can’t recreate, they will cut short vacations and travel less. This creates an image problem too,” says Lorenz.

Thousands of vacationers ride the ferry from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island. Michigan’s tourism industry provides about 200,000 jobs.
Photo by Eric Maes

“The spending of discretionary dollars on recreational enjoyment has diminished,” he says, also noting the state’s tourism industry provides about 200,000 jobs, $18.8 billion annually and $1 billion in tax revenue.

William Hryb, general manager of Lakehead Shipping Company Ltd. in Thunder Bay, Ontario, understands the impact of low lake levels. Lakehead is a shipping agency representing ocean-going companies around the world.

“Our concern on the negative effects of low water levels started about two years ago,” says Hryb, also a member of the Public Interest Advisory Group and International Upper Great Lakes Study. “There has been a ripple effect. Ships aren’t able to carry the loads they were designed for because dock facilities in some ports cannot manage full loads due to low water levels. Shippers aren’t able to send as much to their customers. Later shipments mean more fuel and labor which is passed on to the final consumer.”

Low water levels in the St. Lawrence Seaway and Lake Michigan have slowed commercial vessels. Hryb says ships coming into ports like Cleveland, Detroit and into Lake Michigan have to lighten their loads before arriving into those regions, taking cargo off before entering the seaway, or taking less cargo from the source.

According to Glen Nekvasil, vice president of corporate communications for Lake Carriers’ Association in Cleveland, Ohio, low lake levels have been creating a dredging crisis.

“Right now it would cost $230 million to dredge the ports and waterways to their proper depth,” he says.

A 1,000-foot-long U.S. -Flag Laker delivers coal to the power plant in Marquette, Mich. Low water levels and lack of adequate dredging have forced vessels to leave behind thousands of tons of coal and other cargos each trip. Photo by Rod Burdick

The amount of cargo left behind is hurting the companies ordering the raw material. “Our largest ships, with a capacity of 70,000 tons, are leaving 8,000 tons of cargo per shipment behind,” explains Nekvasil. “That much coal would produce enough electricity to power greater Detroit for three hours. Eight thousand tons of iron ore would make enough steel to produce 6,000 cars.”

Conversely, David Irish, owner of a boat shop in Harbor Springs, says that up to now, his business hasn’t suffered much from low lake levels.

But if levels continue to fall in the range of one additional foot, Irish believes the damage to his business would increase significantly with extensive dredging required.

“Some docks in our marinas are unusable for deep draft boats, typically sailboats,” he says. “Areas of the marinas that cannot be dredged will be rendered unusable. Use will decline, affecting our boat yard and service business, as well as our new boat and brokerage sales.”

While global warming isn’t a phrase that Doug Martz, chair of Macomb County’s Water Quality Board, cares much for, he says he does recognize a climate change is occurring.

“I live on a canal on Lake St. Clair, and my boat in the backyard has just been sitting there for a couple of years. It’s like somebody pulled the plug, and now there’s no water in the canal.

“I’ve even got 18-foot tall Phragmites growing all over on my receding shoreline. They’re a very hard to get rid of species, and I understand they’ve spread as far north as Houghton Lake.”

Martz, a builder by trade, says he has seen sewage dumps, illegal sewer connections and hundreds of chemical spills in Michigan waterways, angering him enough to remain active in state and local water issues.

“I know that the Great Lakes states and Canada are trying to stop any diversion of water. But what’s alarming is that whatever amount of water is, or might be, diverted won’t be coming back.”