Opinion: Water quality has improved for Mich.

Jason Hayes
This May 2019 photo shows the Belle River in Columbus Township, Mich.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer believes that children today worry about water quality while kids in the 1970s didn’t have to. But kids back then were aware of key policy issues, like water quality, and since that time water quality has significantly improved.

In her opening address to the 2019 Mackinac Policy Conference, Whitmer talked about the postcards she receives from Michigan’s children, noting that many lament the state of Michigan’s roads and the quality of our drinking water. The governor appeared shocked that kids, who “aren’t even driving yet,” could be so keenly focused on such potent political issues.

MIRS News reported on how the governor asked conference participants to think back and to remember the concerns they had when they were in the second grade. Stressing the differences between then and now, she noted that "second graders in 1979 never worried about the quality of water in the tap."

I would have been in the third grade in 1979 — close enough for a rough comparison. I can confirm that, at 8 or 9, I was more interested in Scooby and Shaggy unmasking the next villain than I was thinking about the quality of the water coming from my kitchen faucet. Despite that fact, I still must protest the governor’s point.

The reality is that kids today are marinated in environmental activism from an early age, so it’s not really a surprise that some of them join in the letter-writing campaigns the governor mentioned. But the kids of 1979 were themselves also focused on more than the Saturday morning cartoons. We were pushed to learn about current policy and political issues as well. As a result, we, along with the rest of the country, were very much aware of things like the potential for a nuclear war, the Iranian hostage crisis, the oil shock of 1978-79, and “killer rabbits.”

Furthermore, contrary to the governor’s assertion, kids in 1979 were also hearing about water quality issues. I get that; while she was in grade school, our future governor may not have made a habit of reviewing General Accounting Office reporting on water quality — I know I didn’t. But those reports did exist and many of them bluntly pointed out the challenges facing state and federal managers who were trying to meet national water quality goals.

As the 1990s started, a federal report on drinking water recounted the compliance and enforcement issues that had plagued state and federal managers since the passage of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. The report described how Michigan “had not enforced federal monitoring requirements for inorganic chemicals since 1982 because EPA and the state agreed that limited resources should be used to test for volatile organic compounds instead.”

Additionally, the country didn’t even implement strict federal water rules on lead and copper until 1991. Before then, the federal standard (50 parts per billion) was more than three times higher than today’s action level (15 ppb), at which mandatory corrective actions must be taken to reduce corrosion and resulting increases in lead levels.

But things have improved since the 1970s, or even the early 1990s. Water quality concerns were the reason Congress enacted the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. Subsequent research shows that in almost every area measured, water quality has improved. This includes declines in bacteria, sewerage and other harmful chemicals, as well as an increased number of waters that can be fished in and used safely.

There’s no doubt that the governor’s comment was an effective attempt to portray today’s children as facing some unprecedented challenges. But a more realistic consideration of historical facts shows by most environmental measures, things have been getting better rather than worse.

Jason Hayes is the director of environmental olicy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.