Michigan's Environment is Cleaner Than it's Been in More Than 100 Years

Disease, contamination and pollutants are mostly in the past while wildlife is flourishing

Many people view the relationship between humans and nature as a zero-sum game: Our progress comes at the direct expense of the environment. Actually, that’s not the case.

Recently, we’ve been able to dramatically improve our standard of living while simultaneously leaving behind a cleaner environment. In fact, Michigan’s environment is arguably cleaner than it has been in more than 100 years.

Consider how clean our drinking water has become. In the early 20th century, waterborne infectious diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid were leading causes of death, and typhoid epidemics annually sickened thousands in American cities. With technological leaps in filtration – now to the level of filtering microbes and chemical compounds, disinfection and water analysis – these waterborne illnesses have been practically eradicated in Michigan and the United States.

Thomas Doran

The water in our rivers, lakes and streams is also less contaminated than it used to be. Treated wastewater and storm water contain significantly lower levels of contaminants, as technology and control systems have advanced. Some wastewater treatment plants in Michigan discharge water of higher quality than their receiving streams. For example, the PARCC Side Clean Water Plant in Plainfield, Michigan discharges four million gallons of water per day into the Grand River that is of better quality than the river’s water. Other Michigan treatment plants can also produce effluents better than river water much of the time.

Wildlife habitats are improving, too. In a 2010 Detroit News article, Jim Lynch chronicled the repopulation of wildlife around Detroit, writing, “After decades of struggling to overcome the Detroit River’s polluted past, a variety of fish and bird species have re-established themselves ... [t]he budding osprey population is joined by increasing numbers of walleye, lake sturgeon and whitefish as well as bird species like the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.”

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A similar phenomenon is occurring in Michigan streams, rivers and lakes. The Grand River has become a fishing mecca, with bounties of salmon, steelhead, brown trout, bass, catfish and walleye. According to a recent report, the combined sewer overflow pollutant loads in the Rouge River, which flows into the Detroit River, have been reduced by 90 to 100 percent during most events. Further, for the first time in decades, the fish consumption advisory for some species in Wayne County’s Newburgh Lake has been lifted.

In addition to this evidence, there is abundant evidence in plain sight that the environment has been steadily improving. Some can remember the days when oil sheens covered Michigan rivers and lakes, when coal-fired home furnaces produced black palls in our cities, and when industrial and municipal wastes were dumped on empty sites or in unsecured pits. These environmental scars have been virtually eradicated in Michigan.

One of the reasons many find it easy to believe a narrative that the environment is consistently getting worse is, somewhat ironically, due to human technological advances. Analytic devices that used to detect contaminants measured in parts per million are now able to find these materials in parts per billion, or even parts per trillion. This causes many to believe that conditions are worsening, judging that 1,000 parts per billion of a contaminant is worse than 10 parts per million, when 1,000 parts per billion is actually 10 times less than 10 parts per million.

Additionally, there were once only a handful of environmental advocacy organizations. But now there are hundreds whose fundraising is enhanced by being provocative rather than presenting a balanced assessment. Moreover, there is a radical element in this movement that is anti-consumer and in favor a society regulated by an “enlightened” few. For this element, evidence of environmental progress and technological advancements seem to be of secondary importance.

Finally, against the evidence of history, many believe that if we can’t instantly solve a problem today, then it will still be a problem next year and next decade. Dire predictions are often based on this misconception. But the fact is that technology keeps improving at an accelerating pace, making humans better able to meet the environmental challenges of tomorrow and beyond.

There are still environmental challenges of great concern: invasive species, occasional outbreaks of toxic algae and pathogenic microorganisms in water supplies, old and failing infrastructure, and micro-constituents from hormones and other drugs we put down the drain. These concerns should be addressed, but let’s not let them overshadow the improvements we’ve made. With more conscientious operating practices and improving technology, we don’t have to choose between economic development and the environment.

In a 2013 article entitled “Science Is About Evidence, Not Consensus,” Matt Ridley, who formerly authored the Mind & Matter column for the Wall Street Journal, wrote, “[I]t is the evidence that persuades me whether a theory is right or wrong, and no, I could not care less what the ‘consensus’ says.” There may at times appear to be a consensus that Michigan’s environment in under assault and deteriorating, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Michigan’s natural resources can be improved, protected, and remain a key component of this state’s economic future.

Thomas Doran is a member of the College of Fellows of The Engineering Society of Detroit and an adjunct professor of civil engineering at Lawrence Technological University.


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