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Lake St. Clair water quality issues frustrate Macomb County residents, elected officials

State Representatives Pete Lucido and Kevin Hertel stand together at the podium of a town hall they co-sponsored.
Tyler Scott
State Representatives Pete Lucido (R-36) and Kevin Hertel (D-18) sponsored the town hall at MacRay Harbor in Harrison Township, where a few hundred Macomb County residents peppered a panel of MDEQ officials with questions about water quality in the lake.

A few hundred Macomb county residents prodded a panel of MDEQ officials at a town hall about the health of Lake St. Clair as it relates to beach closures due to E. Coli contamination, sewage overflows into the lake and foul-smelling muck in the water, which is also a source of drinking water in southeast Michigan.

“The consumer, the taxpayer, the ratepayer, is pissed off,” said State Representative Peter Lucido (R – 36th), who co-sponsored the town hall. “They want answers and they want solutions that are going to work without (hearing) ‘we’re working on it, we’re working on it’.”

Local and state elected officials in attendance also commented on infrastructure problems they believe are contributing to debris and muck in the water and put much of the blame on decades-old sewer systems that sometimes overflow sewage into the lake.

However, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Water Resources Division Assistant Director Phil Argiroff says combined sewer systems (which carry storm water runoff and sewage in one pipeline) and sometimes overflow into lake St. Clair during heavy rains do “currently protect and meet our water quality standards.”

“That said, there are a lot of things I think affect this lake,” Argiroff said, citing agricultural runoff in upstream tributaries, illegal septic connections into the lake and wildlife management concerns at beaches.

A hand-out from the Department of Environmental Quality outlined more than $400 million in completed or ongoing projects to correct combined-sewer systems, which are no longer being built, through either separation of the sewage from the storm water runoff, or treatment at retention treatment basins in nearby areas.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller wants to “resolve” the issues of combined sewer overflows in southeast Michigan. But she says she’d like to see the MDEQ water quality standards raised to higher levels.

“The MDEQ needs to be legislated into raising those (water quality) standards because I think that would force the issue for Oakland County, Macomb County, (and) others in the Great Lakes Basin,” Miller said. “But that’s only one component of the problem…. It’s not just a silver bullet… we have to have a layered approach and a plan of action.”

Finding solutions to the concerns about water quality issues on Lake St. Clair is a complex task, because there’s more than one contributing factor. MDEQ toxicology specialist Shannon Briggs says the days when Combined Sewage Overflows into the lake occur rarely correspond to the days when beaches have been closed due to E. Coli contamination.

Briggs suggests local municipalities fund QPCR analysis, a faster way of testing E. Coli at the beach and determining its source. That is, a way to find out whether the E. Coli at the beaches is coming from human sewage or other sources like geese and seagulls on the beach. If E. Coli was coming from wildlife, she says there are green infrastructure and wildlife management efforts to reduce contamination from those sources.

“Everyone in this room was convinced that the sewage is a problem, and I’m not going to argue that,” Briggs said. “But what I am going to say is there’s more we can do at the beach to make a difference.”

Miller agrees, saying the beach at Lake St. Clair Metropark should be reconfigured precisely because it attracts so much wildlife. And taking steps to address potential sources for E. Coli contamination at the beach are much cheaper than the costly process “separating” old combined sewer systems that cause overflows. And, like Briggs said, Miller noted many of the days the beach was closed due to E. Coli contamination there wasn’t any rain which could have caused sewage overflows.

“Some of those days we had no rain,” Miller said. “In that case, it (E. Coli contamination) was probably more of the geese, quite frankly. Metropolitan beach needs to do some things that are easy to do… right now (the beach) has got beautiful green grass, and all that is, is a buffet sign for geese,” Miller said.

Lucido, for his part, wants the DEQ to lay out a clear plan of action to address water quality concerns of residents. He also opined about creating a citizen advisory panel as a way for the Governor to hear about the public concerns about Lake St. Clair.

“I want to know what they want me to do,” Lucido said. “Because I have to tell you, 30 years ago they said separation (of the combined sewer systems), and we’re still playing with separation.”

State representative Kevin Hertel (D – 18th) says the concerns about combined sewage overflows, and remediating lakeshore infrastructure should be part of a strategy to resolve citizen concerns about water quality on the lake.

“We have to bring everybody together that’s a stakeholder in this from every level of government, from the local level all the way up to the federal level of government and work on a plan to address this issue,” Hertel said. “We have been dealing with this in these communities for 30 years. We can’t be talking about these same issues 20 or 30 years from now. … We have to have a plan of action and move forward.”

The Detroit Free Press reports that 4.2 million people in Michigan get their drinking water from Lake St. Clair, the St. Clair River upstream, or the Detroit River downstream.

There are also concerns about addressing agricultural runoff into upstream tributaries that could be contributing to some of the lake’s problems, and previous industrial pollution from companies on the Canadian side of the lake.

Tyler Scott is the weekend afternoon host at Michigan Public, though you can often hear him filling in at other times during the week. Tyler started in radio at age 18, as a board operator at WMLM 1520AM in Alma, Michigan, where he later became host of The Morning Show.
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