GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Clean Water Act turns 50 this year, but the latest national data shows our states still have a lot of work to do to ensure our waterways are safe.
When the ambitious amendments were passed in 1972, lawmakers hoped to declare all waterways safe for swimming and fishing by 1982. According to a national analysis compiled by the Environmental Integrity Project, 51% of the assessed rivers and streams and 55% of lakes currently have some form of pollutant.
In Michigan, the numbers are even worse: 95% of our assessed rivers and streams were deemed “impaired” for swimming and recreation activities, and 96% had some form of fish consumption warning. However, those numbers don’t inherently mean Michigan’s waters are in worse shape than other states.
Tom Pelton, the co-author of the EIP analysis, said several factors play into those numbers and make state-to-state comparisons murky.
“Each and every state assesses things differently,” Pelton told News 8. “They don’t always cover the same amount of waterways as other states and they’re free under the EPA rules to have some flexibility with that. So it does create kind of an interesting variable.”
Pelton said some states can analyze all of their waterways, while states like Michigan, which have a larger area to cover, instead focus on troublesome spots or the most popular waterways. On the other side of the coin, doing extensive reporting takes time and money and not every state has the resources to commit to it.
“A lot of state environmental agencies have had their staffing cut so badly over the last 20 years, so they don’t have the personnel to go out and sample the rivers and streams like they’re supposed to,” Pelton said. “Sometimes states have high impairment numbers because they’re going out and studying more rivers than other states are.”
In 2020, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy reported its team assessed 16,652 miles of rivers and streams across the state — about 22% of the total mileage of rivers and streams in the state. Kevin Goodwin, an aquatic biology specialist that leads EGLE’s biennial reports, says they rotate through which bodies of water they cover, but testing every single mile of waterway isn’t their goal.
“We are continually shifting focus, trying to identify places that need work,” Goodwin told News 8. “The goal (of the biennial EPA reports) is to look at what overall the state waters look like. But we’re looking for problems so we can identify places where work needs to be done. So, while that number is big in terms of impairments. If we looked at all waters equally, that’d be a very different picture.”
Both Pelton and Goodwin also note that there is no clear standard for what is and isn’t considered an “impairment.” Pelton uses Minnesota and Connecticut as examples. Tons of waterways across the country have a fish consumption advisory for mercury because of air pollution caused from all over the world. The fish are safe to eat, but they recommend not eating too much. Minnesota regulators deem every lake or river with that fish consumption advisory as “impaired.” Connecticut, however, with the same mercury exposure and warnings, does not.
“Because each state is free to define impaired as they choose, it does create a certain amount of chaos in terms of our whole system, judging which states are cleaner than other states and, you know, wherever we should put resources,” Pelton said. “So, one of the recommendations in our report is that the EPA should impose a national standard for what we mean by impaired.”
Goodwin wouldn’t speak for other states but said Michigan is extremely committed to keeping its waters clean.
“There are hardly any other states in the country that are as blessed as we are with surface water resources. We do take that very seriously, and it’s such an important part of the Michigander way of life,” Goodwin said. “We’ve got good staff doing a lot of good work with limited resources and focusing that effort on places where we think we can identify issues and make the best sort of progress in those places that need to be made.”