Water

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By July of next year, a practice in Ohio’s commercial harbors will no longer be allowed — the dumping of dredged materials into the open waters of Lake Erie. This ban is the result of a bill passed by the legislature in 2015 (SB 1), and is part of the state’s broader efforts to keep excess nutrients from entering the shallowest of the Great Lakes, causing harmful algal blooms and degrading water quality.
The legislative action from four years ago, along with subsequent funding commitments, has led to an unprecedented effort in the state to find beneficial uses of these materials — the rock, sand, gravel, mud and clay removed from the bottom of shipping channels to keep them safe for navigation.

If a state or local government discharges a pollutant from a point source to a navigable water it must obtain a permit under the Clean Water Act (CWA). But what if that pollutant is conveyed in something—say groundwater—between the point source and the navigable water? Must the state or local government still obtain a permit? That is the question the Supreme Court will decide next term in County of Maui, Hawaii v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund.

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Michigan Sen. Curt VanderWall calls it the “most scrutinized pipeline in the nation.” And whatever one thinks the state should do about the future of Line 5 ­­— which is located under the Straits of Mackinac and carries up to 540,000 barrels of oil and natural gas liquids every day — it’s hard to disagree with the observation. Built in 1953, the twin pipelines have been called a “sunken hazard” that put the “Great Lakes at risk of a catastrophic oil pipeline rupture.”
But VanderWall and others note that Michigan relies on the energy supplies being shipped via Line 5. He says, for example, that most of the propane used in the Upper Peninsula comes from the 645-mile pipeline, which starts in Wisconsin, goes under the Straits, and then winds through Michigan before reaching Ontario.
“To get the same supplies by truck, you’d need 2,400 trucks doing it every day, nonstop,” says VanderWall, a member of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Legislative Caucus Executive Committee. “The pipeline is the safest way to transport the oil. We need to make it safer.”
The state’s policy solution, at least for now, is this: Allow Line 5 to continue to operate for another few years, under enhanced inspections. Meanwhile, begin construction on a utility tunnel, located up to 100 feet beneath the lakebed, that would secure a new pipeline.
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A bipartisan deal on how to manage the nation’s water resources has potentially big implications for the Great Lakes and the region’s states — authorization of a nearly $1 billion project at the Soo Locks, movement on a plan to stop Asian carp, and more money to protect drinking water.
Signed into law in October, the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) also establishes new programs to research the eradication of zebra mussels and Asian carp and to explore technologies that prevent harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes.
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A trio of recently enacted bills in Michigan aims to help legislators take a longer, systematic view of how to meet the state’s infrastructure needs. According to Gov. Rick Snyder, his state is the first in the nation to implement this type of coordinated effort to manage drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, transportation and private utilities.
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Last fall, nine Lake Erie experts identified specific strategies that they viewed as most important to reducing phosphorus runoff and preventing harmful algal blooms in the lake’s western basin. As of early June, Ohio legislators were moving toward passage of a bill backing those scientists’ findings with state dollars.
“That was the blueprint — use those evidence-based strategies and then target the funds to critical areas in the sub-watersheds [of the western basin],” says Rep. Steven Arndt. Ohio admittedly has a long way to go to reach its target — a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus loads by 2025. That is the amount specified in binational agreements between the United States and Canada and among the governments of Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.
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As part of what state officials say is the strictest set of lead and copper standards in the nation, Michigan will require all of the state’s public water systems to replace their lead service lines. Starting in 2021, the Detroit Free Press reports, each public water system must replace, on average, 5 percent of its lead service pipes per year over a 20-year period, with water customers paying for most of the estimated $2.5 billion price tag.

Single-use plastic straws have recently come under fire, much like single-use plastic shopping bags and plastic microbeads. This year, Seattle became the largest U.S. city to ban the use of plastic straws and...

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Late in 2017, Michigan lawmakers ended their legislative year seeking a fix to another problem with drinking water in the state. It wasn’t lead contamination this time, but rather the discovery of 28 sites in the state with known levels of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The Legislature allocated $23.2 million for various response and mitigation measures.
In early 2018, the Minnesota attorney general finalized an $850 million settlement with 3M over groundwater contamination in the east metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. The cause: The company’s disposal, over decades, of PFAS chemicals used for products such as Scotchgard, stain removers and fire retardants.Though these chemicals were used for decades, and many of them have been phased out of production, they are considered an “emerging contaminant” — because environmental and health officials have only recently begun to test for the presence of PFAS chemicals in drinking water, detect them, and understand their potential impact on human health.
The new funding in Michigan will be used to purchase new lab equipment, expand testing of drinking water, and purchase filtration systems for affected residents. A longer-term fix is likely to be more problematic and costly, whether it’s pumping out all the groundwater and removing the chemicals or hooking up the owners of private wells (this has been the group most affected in Michigan) to a municipal system.
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Michigan has 3,000 miles of coastline and more Great Lakes water within its jurisdiction than any other state or province in the basin. But one of the big ecological threats to this freshwater system is well outside the state’s borders — in Illinois and Indiana, where invasive species of Asian carp would be most likely to enter the Great Lakes basin, via the Chicago Area Waterway System.

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