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How much is clean water worth?

Water running from tap
Creative Commons

Back in early summer I went to see Candice Miller, the former congresswoman who is now Macomb County Public Works Commissioner. She was mainly concerned with dealing with the now-famous sewer collapse that happened in Sterling Heights last Christmas.

Miller is far more conservative than I, but I’ve always admired her can-do, no-nonsense and pragmatic approach to government. She had thrown herself completely into her new job, and was discovering new things daily. Among them, she told me, was an apartment complex in Eastpointe that was illegally discharging all its sewage directly into Lake St. Clair.

“I’m sure they’re not the only one,” she told me. What most of us don’t realize is that more than four million Michigan residents get their water from that lake or rivers that flow into or out of it, all of which have been fighting pollution problems for years.

Most of those who live in Macomb or St. Clair counties know that many of Lake St. Clair’s beaches are often closed due to E. Coli contamination.

To its credit, the Detroit Free Press Sunday began publishing the results of a large investigation into pollution in Lake St. Clair, and it makes grim reading. There are a number of different causes for this, including massive amounts of poop produced by seagulls, and at this time of year especially, migrating Canada geese.

More than half of the lake is in Canada, which hasn’t been guilt-free. A stretch of Lake Huron along Sarnia, right across from Port Huron, is the heart of Ontario’s petrochemical industry, and those factories emit millions of pounds of toxic air pollutants which settle into the water.

But by far the worst culprit is the sewer systems in the Michigan communities around the lake. Most places still use what is called a combined sewer system, which means one pipe carries both rain water and raw sewage. That works well in comparatively dry weather, and the sewage gets shunted off to a treatment plant. But when you get a large rainfall, all too often it means that raw or only partly treated sewage goes cascading directly into the lake.

The same lake that supplies us with drinking water. This problem has been getting worse, in part because the population of Macomb County has exploded in recent decades.

Clearly, we have to do something about this, or risk being poisoned by our own you-know-what. Better treatment plants may be needed, and we need to convert as many buildings as possible from the old-fashioned combined sewage systems to one where you have one series of pipes for storm water and another to take sewage directly to a treatment center.

That will cost money, and yes, that may mean raising taxes. What boggles my mind is that knowing all this, knowing infrastructure is wearing out statewide, we’ve got politicians pushing to cut the state income tax, or in the case of Macomb County State Senator Jack Brandenburg, to eliminate it entirely.

Two Macomb state representatives, Republican Pete Lucido and Democrat Kevin Hertel, are bringing in officials from the state Department of Environmental Quality and holding a forum about Lake

St. Clair water quality issues in Harrison Township starting at 6 tonight. If you have any interest in clean water, you might want to go.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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