Editorial: Local governments & citizens must work together to head off future Flint-like water crisis
Editor’s Note: While the Manchester Mirror takes no position on political issues, we will occasionally provide space for commentary from community members with expertise.
by Scott Brown
Executive Director of Michigan Lake & Stream Associations
One of the things I value most about serving as Executive Director of Michigan Lake and Stream Associations and the late spring and summer days I spend diving and snorkeling is that I have had the opportunity to develop a good understanding of the problems confronting our vast legacy of inland lakes. My job with the now fifty five year old conservation focused organization has allowed me to become involved in a wide range of lake, stream, and watershed issues that are of concern to many of our lake and stream associations as well as government policy makers, and scientists. An onslaught of often harmful exotic aquatic invasive species, excess nutrient loading from a variety of sources, failing water infrastructure, and destruction of natural shorelines in favor of manicured lawns at the lakefront, are just examples of the many problems currently threatening Michigan’s freshwater resources.
With no easily applied or inexpensive solutions to these increasingly widespread problems on the horizon, it has become readily apparent that no single public or private agency or organization in Michigan possesses, or will ever possess, the resources necessary to effectively tackle the complex issues threatening many of our lakes and streams. The fact is, even the taxpayer funded state agencies designated by the state constitution to “conserve, protect, and manage Michigan’s water resources for current and future generations”, will never have the resources they need to even come close to successfully fulfilling their stated mission. It has also become clear that without increased engagement by Michigan’s 2,800 local governments, concerned citizens, and their respective communities, we can expect that the natural beauty, water quality, recreational viability, and economic value of many of our lakes, streams, and wetlands will continue to decline.
Growing up in the Manchester/Brooklyn-Irish Hills area, I cherish the memories of the many days I spent fishing, swimming, and snorkeling in Freedom Township’s Pleasant Lake, and in many other lakes that grace this area … and as I came of age, I’m happy to admit that I spent more than one Friday and/or Saturday night enjoying a cold beer or two at Pleasant Lake’s now infamous Aura (An Unusual Roadside Attraction) Inn. It should come as no surprise that I believe that Pleasant Lake, Manchester, and Freedom Township are very special places that continue to remain near and dear to my heart.
This past February I had the opportunity to discuss the ecological status of Pleasant Lake and some of the important water resources conservation issues that I believe will have an impact on the lake in the future with a group of concerned lake residents at the Freedom Township hall.
In most respects, Pleasant Lake is in relatively good ecological health, although like many other lakes in Michigan, it suffers from the negative influences of aquatic invasive species, including curly- leaf pond weed, and Eurasian water milfoil as well as excess input of harmful nutrients to the lakes relatively small basin. Recognizing the long-term threat posed by aquatic invasive plants, the residents of Pleasant Lake worked with the Freedom Township Board officials in 2014 to gain approval of a Special Assessment District in order fund a five year plan to control the invasive species in the lake. The results of early surveys indicate that the plan to manage invasive plants in Pleasant Lake appears to have been successful so far in reducing both the abundance and harmful impact of these pesky aquatic invaders. We are also happy to report that there are no zebra mussels or dreaded Starry Stonewort thus far in Pleasant Lake!
I also used this opportunity to discuss potential future threats to the lake such as harmful nutrient laden runoff, continued loss of natural shorelines, expanding residential and commercial development, and the gas pipelines that are located close to the lake’s basin. We also talked about the importance of taking advantage of the opportunity for local government officials to work with concerned citizens in passing local zoning and land use ordinances designed to protect the lake, and the remaining wetlands, streams, and woodlands in the area. These natural features are highly valuable “green infrastructure” assets that serve to help protect the water quality of Pleasant Lake, and enhance the unique rural character of the Township.
The on-going Flint water crisis, declining water infrastructure, including failing combined urban sewer systems, and waste water treatment plants, as well as the steady increase in the number of aquatic invasive species entering Michigan waters, points to a decades long period of mismanagement, neglect, and woefully inadequate funding for water resources protection in Michigan. The serious consequences of this failure have only now just begun to negatively impact the quality of life for many our fellow citizens. Accordingly, Michigan Lake and Stream Associations believes it is time for our Governor, and for our state legislature to begin an earnest conversation about dramatically increasing Michigan’s investment in water resources protection and stepping up state efforts to train and/or assist local unit of government officials in water resources management and protection.
Our lakes and streams and their associated natural resources such as wetlands, represent an important component of Michigan’s ecological, recreational and economic future. Inland lake shoreline property alone, whose immense value is directly related to the presence of healthy aquatic ecosystems, has been conservatively valued at 200 billion dollars, generating $3.5 billion in annual property tax assessments that goes to support hundreds of local units of government, public safety agencies, and public school systems. Moreover, water-borne recreational opportunities that contribute $15 billion in economic activity each year to Michigan’s economy like fishing, boating, and waterfowl hunting also depend upon the ability to protect the ecological health of our lakes, streams and wetlands. Given their immense value and the vast contributions they make to our quality of life in Michigan, we would suggest that the time to re-invest in our treasure of water resources is now long overdue.
To make matters even worse, in the midst of a losing battle with exotic aquatic invasive species, and failing water infrastructure, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has proposed a plan to establish hundreds of new boat launch sites on inland lakes throughout Michigan. With seemingly blatant disregard for the fact that the majority of new aquatic invasive introductions occur at public boat launch facilities, often leaving local lakefront residents “on the hook” for paying the $25M+ annual bill for aquatic invasive species management in Michigan. The Michigan DNR plan promises to make matters worse for our lakes, and for the hundreds of thousands of people living on those lakes. This is the reason why Pleasant Lake residents spoke out so actively in 2015 against the possibility of a DNR owned boat launch on their lake!
Another area of concern is the lack of engagement by many of Michigan’s 1,250 townships and 83 county governments. Michigan state law authorizes local units of government to pass lake, wetland, and stream protection ordinances, a fact that seems to escape many of our local government officials. We believe that concerned citizens, local units of government, lake associations, and other water resources stakeholder groups in Michigan should be working together to protect and preserve our inland lakes, streams, and wetlands for future generations. Supporting efforts to maintain the health of our water resources includes involving the community in developing water resources protection focused master plans and zoning ordinances that protect “green infrastructure” assets like wetlands, streams, and lakes while allowing residential and/or commercial development to occur in a wise manner that is compatible with preserving the natural environment, and the existing rural character of the community.
How much better off would Flint be today if state and local government officials had initially listened to concerned citizens, and worked together to resolve issues before they reached the crisis level, rather than denying problems, fighting with their own constituents, and then engaging in the blame game?
Township and county Boards and planning commissions need to begin to recognize that our lakes, streams, and wetlands are important community assets that must be protected and begin to act accordingly. This implies that local unit of government board and planning members need to become educated about modern planning and zoning techniques, and laws.
Did you know that only 38% of the people who serve local units of government have had any formal training whatsoever regarding their sworn duties and responsibilities? We are left to ponder why people run for local political office, or readily accept appointments to boards and committees if they are not willing to become even minimally qualified to do the job. We believe that it is in the best interest of the people of Michigan and our water resources to mandate the completion of planning and zoning training in order to even qualify to put your name on the ballot as a candidate for local office, as has been mandated in several other states. The stakes are far too high for us to do otherwise. Planning and preparing communities for the future is no task for amateurs or people without the knowledge and experience to effectively accomplish their duties.
There is a glimmer of hope for Michigan. The Flint water crisis has focused the attention of the public on water resource issues, and the dire consequence of failing to act in a timely, wise, and responsible manner. Hopefully, our state and local units of government will finally “see the light” of the benefits of responsible land use planning, and water resources management and conservation. Regional water resources advocacy groups such as the Huron River Watershed Council, and our state universities are working with local officials and concerned citizens in helping to develop local actions that can be taken to help protect inland lakes, streams, and wetlands in their communities. The Huron River Watershed Council has also recently offered to work with Freedom Township officials, lakefront property owners, and lake association members in providing expert guidance and updates to the township’s master plan and zoning ordinances.
We believe that this is a good first step in improving water resources protection and helping ensure that Freedom Township, including Pleasant Lake, remains a unique place with distinctive rural character and charm. Michigan Lake and Stream Associations applauds these efforts – the township will be much better prepared as the wave of increased demand for residential and commercial development comes their direction in the coming years. The history of the last forty years teaches us that rural townships located within a short commute of Michigan’s urban centers such as Ann Arbor that fail to adequately or thoughtfully plan and prepare for the onslaught of residential and commercial development that is sure to arrive in the coming decades, will forever lose both their rural charm, and high quality of life.