June 11, 2014 at 1:00 am

COLUMNS

Michigan needs new clean water rule

Michiganians enjoy the abundance of fresh water nearby. But that water has to be clean to be fully enjoyed. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Do you hunt or fish in Michigan? Do you swim in Michiganís lakes or rivers? Do you drink Michiganís water?

If you answered yes to one or more of the above questions, then you have a direct personal stake in the outcome of a recently announced proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA wants to restore Clean Water Act protections to nearly two million miles of streams and millions of acres of wetlands, which benefit communities and recreational users in Michigan and across the U.S. That means closing a loophole that has allowed polluters to dump waste into many small water bodies without repercussions. All water flows downstream; pollution dumped into upstream wetlands and streams eventually makes its way into downstream lakes and rivers.

The relevance of this proposal to your life is as close as the faucet in your kitchen. An estimated 1.4 million people in Michigan get drinking water from utilities that rely on the headwater streams and small tributaries that would be protected under the new EPA rules.

If you look across Michigan, the potential impacts are impossible to miss. Residents of Isabella and Gratiot Counties rely on these smaller water bodies for 100 percent of their drinking water; in Macomb and Sanilac Counties, itís 69-78 percent; in Berrien County, 33 percent.

And, of course, these are some of the waters that feed Lakes St. Clair, Superior and Michigan, increasing the impact in the Great Lakes State.

This is no small issue. In the Midwest, at least 46,000 miles of streams would benefit from these restored protections by closing a loophole that gives polluters a pass. In EPAís Region 5, which includes Michigan, the agency was forced to downgrade or not pursue pollution cases in 29 different cases because of the ďuncertainty about EPAís jurisdiction over the receiving waters.Ē EPA only went after three Clean Water Act enforcement cases in Region 5 over the same 18 months period. This proposal would improve the agencyís ability to do its job, by granting it the authority to keep smaller streams, tributaries and wetlands free of pollution.

Beyond drinking water, Michiganís small streams and wetlands also serve as the lifeblood of outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing. Michigan has more than 1.74 million anglers who spent nearly $2.5 billion on the sport in 2011. Michigan is second only to Florida in terms of tourist fishing destinations. In that same year, almost 350,000 out-of-state anglers spent more than $325 million in Michigan. Six locations in the state are on Bassmaster magazineís recently released national list of the 100 best bass lakes of 2014. All of that economic activity is largely dependent on clean and healthy aquatic habitat.

We canít have healthy lakes and rivers without protecting the small streams and wetlands that feed them. Small and seasonal streams and wetlands filter pollutants, protect against flooding, and serve as habitat for fish and wildlife. The Great Lakes need your help.

The EPAís new proposal is open to public comment through July 21. Often times in these situations, the loudest voices are those motivated by financial gain to oppose changes. Thatís why people like you and me need to take the time to get involved in the EPAís public comment period by supporting this proposal.

Patricia Birkholz is the director of the West Michigan Office, Michigan League of Conservation Voters; Karen Hobbs is senior water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).