The State of the Water State

Michigan Environmental Council policy director weighs in on Great Lakes’ prognosis

by Olga Bonfiglio
College of Arts and Sciences Staff Writer

It isn’t easy to be an environmental activist, but someone has to do it, especially at the government’s highest levels. James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, is one man who has been doing this work for his entire professional life.

Clift appeared at the “Our Blue Marble” series at the Honors College Lyceum Lecture Wednesday, February 3. He discussed the Michigan Environmental Council’s work to protect the Great Lakes and seek more sustainable futures.

One of the most pressing problems for the Great Lakes, he said, is phosphorus collection occurring especially in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario with Lake Michigan running a close third. Phosphorus collection that originates from fertilizers used for agricultural or recreational purposes as well as from household cleaning products, wastewater treatment plants, sewer overflow, failing septic systems and storm water runoff, creates blue-green algal blooms. Algae tend to grow very quickly but they also die quickly, which results in a high concentration of dead organic matter that decays. The decay process consumes dissolved oxygen in the water, resulting in hypoxic conditions. Without sufficient dissolved oxygen in the water, animals and plants may die off in large numbers.

The lakes suffered from algal bloom in the 1970s to the point that Lake Erie was declared such an environmental disaster that Cleveland's Cuyahoga River "oozed rather than flowed." Pollution in all the lakes inspired Congress to pass the Clean Water Act and seek remediation.

“This was a time when people rose up and demanded that something be done to clean up the lakes,” said Clift. “Michigan legislators were not on board, however, because they put commercial interests ahead of concerns about the water. They also prohibited regulations on polluting phosphorus and detergents. Then-governor William G. Milliken overruled these legislative efforts and pushed for a clean up of the lakes.”

Today, the lakes are again suffering from algal bloom. State and local officials are now talking about preventative measures that can halt the environmental backslidie currently happening. However, things are more complex today than they were 40 years ago. We now must contend with invasive species like zebra mussels and Asian carp, fertilizers from more intensive agriculture and the effects of climate change, said Clift. “And, we are not hearing that same outcry from the public that we did in the 1970s,” he said.

Agriculture has increased its yields substantially over the last 15 years, with a significant rise in fertilizer use and phosphorus runoff. Corn production in Michigan, for example, grew from 234 million bushels in 2002 to 355.8 million bushels in 2014. Some fertilizers are also applied in the fall rather than in the spring, resulting in nutrient runoff before the nutrients are needed in the spring. Clift doesn’t see an immediate reversal in the demand for food especially since world population is estimated to reach 9 billion by 2100. Agriculture will have to be even more productive to feed the world.

“However, we need to acknowledge our common goal of maintaining productivity, but engaging in methods that retain nutrients in our soil and significantly reduce impacts to our water resources,” he said.

And that change is coming, if slowly. Young farmers, many college-educated in an increasingly complex industry, are more open to regulations because they are more informed about sustainability and long-term impacts. Older farmers are more reluctant to change because they haven’t experienced agriculture regulated for environmental reasons. Instead, they have been motivated for decades by financial incentives courtesy of the U.S. Farm Bill.

“Some of the best ways to influence farmers is through well-designed incentive programs, education efforts and peer pressure,” said Clift. “If more and more of them practice sustainable methods, then more and more of them will follow.”

Septic systems and sewage treatment plants throughout the state also contribute to phosphorus releases in Michigan’s lakes, rivers and streams. The Michigan Environmental Council has advocated for regular testing regimens to reduce “nutrient load” (the quantity of nutrients entering an ecosystem in a given period of time). The Detroit River, for example, has one of the largest sewage treatment plants in the United States servicing over 1,000 square miles and draining sewage from portions of eight counties. In its latest permit, it continues to reduce its phosphorus discharge (down 40% in summer months).

“All these processes are made even more challenging with large storm events that are only increasing because of climate change,” said Clift.

Clift ended his talk as positively as he could despite the dire situation that Michigan faces with its water resources. For example, more tools are being developed to measure the chemical content of water and more maps have been made to study the amounts and directions of surface water that flows into the Great Lakes. Computer models serve as screening tools and data analyses help make the case to policymakers and the public to change their attitudes and practices of water resource management.

Clift shared one ironic glimmer of hope that may help spur such change: insurance companies are recognizing that climate change may reduce coastal property values by $5 trillion in the United States by 2100. This realization has brought them to the table to evaluate adaptation strategies and programs designed to minimize potential impacts in some states. “It’s easy to get into the doom and gloom of climate change,” said Clift. “And our children will see a different world than we do today. However, it’s important to act on these things now to allow our progeny to see the world as we now see it.”

Clift concluded that the best way to get politicians to listen to smart people who have scientific data and practical solutions to our environmental problems is to apply public pressure as people did in the 1970s.

Michigan's Environmental History

In 1999, the Michigan Environmental Council launched an environmental history project to chronicle efforts by citizens to restore and protect Michigan’s natural resources and environment over the last 170 years. Author Dave Dempsey, former senior policy advisor for the Michigan Environmental Council, has recorded Michigan’s environmental history in three books:

  • Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader, traces the evolution of the public movement to conserve Michigan’s forests, fish and wildlife in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the environmental movement that demanded cleanup of the state’s air and water in the 1960s and 1970s. Both movements put Michigan on the nation’s map as a leader in environmental protection.
  • On the Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century details the history of individuals and societies in the U.S. and Canada over the last 150 years coming to terms with the significance of the Great Lakes and the opportunity they represent for another kind of greatness. It looks forward to their most challenging century, one in which that opportunity can at last be met.
  • William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate is a biography of Michigan’s longest-serving governor. It explores how the "web of politics and cultural values determines the way societies choose to interact with their environments."

The Michigan Environmental Council, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, is a coalition of more than 70 organizations created in 1980 to lead Michigan’s environmental movement in achieving positive change through the political process. MEC combines deep environmental policy expertise with close connections to key state and federal decision makers, decades of experience getting things done in the political process, and an ability to rally broad and powerful alliances in support of reforms. With our member groups and partners in the public health and faith-based communities, MEC promotes public policies to ensure that Michigan families will enjoy clear waters, clean beaches, beautiful landscapes and healthy communities for years to come.