ON THE BEACH • Michigan Beach Closures Indicative of Over Development and Inadequate Sewage Treatment

    icon Aug 24, 2017
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As one who was born and bred in Michigan, the number #1 reason I have always remained located in the great state of Michigan is because of the immaculate, breathtaking, and invaluable resource of the Great Lakes and its associated inland waterways. So it was with great distress that as the 4th of July holiday rolled around this summer the news hit that several Michigan beaches, including the Caseville State Park and even more significantly, the Traverse City State Park Beach along the Miracle Mile were being closed due to high levels of e-coli bacteria.  And it is with even greater disdain that I find myself sitting here writing and assembling this piece about the short-sightedness and negligence that has propagated this calamity in the first place.

According to government data analyzed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, on a regional basis Great Lakes beaches are closed more often by bacterial pollution than beaches in any other region of the United States.   According to the most recent government data, 11 percent of water samples taken from Great Lakes beaches in 2011 violated health standards for bacterial pollution.

Sewage overflows are one of the most common reasons for fecal pollution and beach closings. In many communities, storm water is funneled into the sanitary sewer system. Fecal pollution problems often arise during heavy rainstorms when large quantities of water overwhelm the sewer system, which overflows and discharges a mixture of rainwater and sewage into lakes and streams.

While many communities have recognized these problems and take measurements to prevent them, far too many are remiss.

Smart and controlled development ensures that sewer systems have enough capacity to handle the wastes of new households and businesses. But uncontrolled sprawl, as a result of poor planning, has often led to pushing already struggling treatment plants over the edge by connecting new homes and businesses when the infrastructure is unable to sustain or support it, as is the case with the burgeoning development in Traverse City, which has already ruined that area with over-congestion.

Great Lakes beaches are known for breathtaking vistas and recreational activities that drive the region’s tourism economy, but a growing number of experts are viewing those same beaches as important indicators of ecosystem health. “Beaches are a window to the Great Lakes,” notes Cameron Davis, senior advisor to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, at a recent Great Lakes Beach Association conference..  “Beaches are what connect people to the Great Lakes … beaches can also be indicators of problems,” Davis said.

If that’s the case, what are the more than 1,000 beaches on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes beaches telling us about conditions in one of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystems? “Our beaches are telling us that the Great Lakes are under enormous stress,” explains Joan Rose, the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University.

Rose said municipal sewer overflows, leaky septic tanks, polluted storm water runoff and invasive species are harming water quality at a number of beaches on all five Great Lakes. That was evident this past summer, when bacterial pollution and nuisance algae blooms forced health officials to close beaches on all five Great Lakes, even Lake Superior, which is known for its clean water.

E. coli is a bacterium that lives in the gut of warm-blooded animals; it’s an indicator of fecal matter in water. According to government data, in 2012 bacterial pollution tied to human and animal waste forced beach closures in all eight Great Lakes states.

Blooms of cladophora algae that breed harmful bacteria forced beach closures at several sites on lakes Ontario, Huron and Michigan. Toxic algae blooms remain a chronic problem on Lake Erie and have been seen on the beaches of Beaver Island.  A rare bloom of potentially toxic blue-green algae in July coated nearly two miles of Lake Superior shoreline in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore with green scum.

Outbreaks of Type E botulism killed scores of water birds along beaches in northern Lake Michigan. Since 1990 Type E botulism outbreaks, which have been exacerbated by invasive zebra and quagga mussels, have killed more than 87,000 birds at beaches along lakes Michigan, Erie, Huron and Ontario.

Many sources contribute to bacterial pollution at Great Lakes beaches, but cities with faulty sewer systems are one of the most obvious and chronic sources of water pollution, said Lyman Welch, water quality program director at the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes.  When rainfall overwhelms combined sewer systems, cities discharge the diluted sewage and storm water into the nearest waterway to prevent flooding of homes and businesses.

U.S. cities discharge more than 18 billion gallons of diluted sewage and storm water into the Great Lakes each year, according to an Alliance for the Great Lakes study. “It is vital that we address the sources of bacteria at Great Lakes beaches to protect public health,” Welch said.

But Congress in recent years has made deep budget cuts in the federal program that helps cities pay for sewer upgrades. Congress is now considering eliminating funding for beach monitoring programs, a move that could leave people guessing whether it’s safe to swim at their favorite Great Lakes beach.

But of course, they have billions of dollars to expend on increasing the Defense budget in 2017-18.

Testing has determined that E. coli in the storm water runoff is likely caused by feces from pets as well as wildlife such as raccoons and deer. Due to increased development in the area and poor design of the storm water system, runoff frequently would overload the old infrastructure, washing over the beach and eroding large amounts of sand into the bay.

Currently some light is forming on the horizon with  green infrastructure projects  under way at Marquette South Beach, Sherman Park, Four Mile Beach, East Bay Park Beach, Suttons Bay Beach, New Buffalo City Beach, Brimley State Park, and Tawas Bay Beaches. Through the Saginaw Bay Coastal Initiative (SBCI), the DEQ and other state agencies is working with citizens, local government officials, and multiple regional and federal agencies to develop and implement a comprehensive approach to promoting environmentally sound economic development and resource restoration in the Saginaw Bay coastal areas by (among other things) working with local interests to improving water quality in Saginaw Bay and its associated waterways.

As admirable as this is, the time has passed for planning and overdue for implementation.  In 2013, Michigan reported 642 coastal beaches, 237 of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 6% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 190 E. coli bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml freshwater in a single sample.  The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in 2013 were Singing Bridge Beach (50%), Hammel Beach Road Access (45%), Bessinger Road Beach (31%), and Whites Beach, all in Arenac County (30%); and South Haven South Beach in Van Buren County (29%).

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

It is totally amazing and completely unacceptable that information on the location or number of storm drains or sewage outfalls in Michigan is not readily available.  The Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant is the nation's largest single-site sewage facility. It can reportedly handle 1.5 billion gallons of sewage and storm water daily from nearly all of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Despite this capacity, it can become so overwhelmed during major rain events that it is forced to discharge inadequately treated sewage into the Detroit and Rouge rivers, which flow into Lake Erie.

In May 2009 the giant Upper Rouge Tunnel combined sewer overflow control project was canceled by Detroit city officials worried about residents' ability to pay increased sewer fees to build the $1.2 billion project.

In February 2010 it was announced that the more than 20 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage dumped annually into metro Detroit waterways would be reduced by up to 20% under an ambitious project under state review. The 25-year, $814-million project by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is designed to upgrade the aging system. DWSD is asking the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment to approve the plan, which includes a 5.5-mile tunnel to store excess storm water that often overwhelms the system, forcing billions of gallons of sewage to be dumped into lakes, rivers and streams. The updates are being required by the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment after the city scrapped a $1.2- billion project in 2009 to build a 7-mile-long Upper Rouge Tunnel to store excess storm water.

In March 2014 it was announced that more than 90 communities would share $97 million in grants and loans to fix aging or overwhelmed sewer systems. The maximum $2 million per local government is intended to help undertake costly planning and engineering for major infrastructure maintenance and improvements.  The money was generated under a 2002 bonding authority and designated for sewer projects under a 2012  law. Gov. Rick Snyder had proposed using another $97 million for a second round of grants in the following fiscal year.

Interest in the new program is high. When the application period opened in December 2013, the agency received 673 applications totaling $541 million in requests. Officials used a random draw to choose recipients and did not differentiate among applicants as long as they qualified, with the State intending to move down the list in each successive year.

A Great Lakes Sewage Report Card was published in November 2006 by Sierra Legal Defence Fund (now Ecojustice). The report states that over 24 billion gallons of sewage and wastewater discharge are dumped into the Great Lakes every year. Detroit, Michigan received the lowest grade in the survey, D, for its discharges into Lake Erie. The city receiving the highest grade was Green Bay, Wisconsin.

In 2006, Grand Rapids officials stated that combined sewer overflows into the Grand River had been reduced by 99 percent since the early 1990s, and that the city was on target to eliminate these spills into the Grand River by 2019. Grand Rapids discharged 32 million gallons in 2006. In contrast, officials in Lansing stated in 2007 that it would take another 15 years (until 2022) to complete its program to eliminate most combined sewer overflows. Lansing sewer overflows have been reduced about 33 percent to "only" 392 million gallons in 2006.

In early 2007 U.S. Steel agreed to a $350,000 settlement with Michigan DEQ to resolve some 170 water quality violations for dumping into the Detroit River since the company took over facilities on Zug Island, Ecorse and River Rouge from National Steel in 2003. Most of the problems evidently relate to issues neglected by National Steel due to their bankruptcy. U.S. Steel claims it has made "tens of millions" of improvements since taking over operations.

In May 2009 an article in the Bay City Times stated that more than 1 billion gallons of partially treated sewage had been dumped into the Saginaw River (which flows into Lake Huron) so far in 2009. The river reached the billion mark in late April, according to a Bay City Times tally of combined sewer overflows, or CSOs. It happened after more than 3 inches of rain overwhelmed the combined sewer system in Saginaw, sending a mix of almost 290 million gallons of sanitary sewage and stormwater from retention basins to the river.  Saginaw's system has been the largest contributor of CSOs to the river - about 904 million gallons.

In late June 2009 it was reported that Saginaw had discharged a total of 54.37 million gallons from its retention basins into the Saginaw River in mid-June after a period of heavy rains.

Illicit Connections and Septic Systems

An article in the Great Lakes Echo on September 24, 2015 stated that Michigan is the only state in the U.S. without a uniform statewide code regulating septic tanks.  The article also stated that one hundred percent of 64 rivers tested in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula tested positive for fecal matter, according to a recent Michigan State University study. The study found a direct correlation between the number of septic tanks in an area and the amount of bacteria and pathogens from human sewage in nearby rivers.

The Detroit Free Press published an article in January 2017 that stated: Up to 1.4 million septic systems — individual waste disposal systems for homes or businesses that aren't connected to a municipal sewer line — still remain in Michigan.  More than 21 million homes in the U.S. still use them. In Michigan — the only state in the U.S. that doesn't regulate septic systems on a statewide basis — septic systems are putting 280 million gallons per day of wastewater into the ground.

Great Lakes Restoration

In June 2009 President Obama appointed Cameron Davis, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes, the first-ever Great Lakes “czar.” Mr. Davis coordinated federal programs on the lakes, including efforts to clean up contaminated sediments, reduce existing pollution sources and work to stop the spread of invasive species. The position was part of a $5 billion, 10-year restoration plan Obama released during his 2008 presidential campaign. Davis' official title is "Senior Advisor to the Administrator" Lisa Jackson at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Congress approved legislation in late October 2009 that included $475 million to restore the Great Lakes by combating invasive species, cleaning up highly polluted sites and expanding wetlands. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) includes:

$146 million for cleaning up pollution in sediment in feeder rivers and harbors before it flows into the Lakes.

$105 million to protect and restore habitat and wildlife.

$97 million to stop "nonpoint" pollution, such as farm fertilizer and oil runoff, that closes beaches and leads to fish kills.

$65 million to evaluate how the Lakes and wildlife are responding to cleanup efforts.

$60 million for combating zebra mussels and other invasive species.

In March 2017 the Trump administration proposed a 97% cut in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

….and now here we are, everything that has led up to this crisis but a prelude.


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