F. Clean Water Fund

The level of CMI funding for water quality programs does not appear to reflect the immense importance of the state's vast fresh-water resources. Fortunately, technological advances have appreciably reduced the cost of collecting quality data. But more stringent regulatory standards will require ever more sensitive measurements.

Grants totaling $4 million were awarded to 33 local units of government and nonprofit groups to expand monitoring of surface water quality. Analyzing water and sediment chemistry, plant growth, and the condition of fish is necessary both to protect public health and guide resource management decisions.

Volunteer groups assist the state with the daunting task of water testing, and CMI funds have wisely been allocated for the necessary training.

The DEQ does receive money from the General Fund for water monitoring, and Congress allocated funds two years ago for testing coastal recreation areas. Despite intermittent episodes of bacterial contamination - the causes of which remain in dispute - most state waters meet state quality standards.

Michigan is among only a handful of states authorized by the EPA to administer water discharge permits required by federal law. A significant backlog of applications plagued the permit program in the early 1990s, when 60 percent of the 1,700 permits had expired. Fortunately, the backlog was largely eliminated by 2000, which ranks among the more important environmental accomplishments of the Engler administration.

It is significant that the CMI largely ignores the most pressing water quality issues in Michigan: aquatic nuisance species and sewage overflows. No single program could possibly remedy every environmental dilemma, of course. But with funds locked in by bond commitments for years to come, big-ticket programs like the CMI limit the state's ability to adjust environmental priorities as circumstances dictate. Voters would do well to keep this in mind when asked to authorize another major environmental bond.

There's no question that storm and sewerage infrastructure requires updating in some areas - just as there are brownfields in need of cleanup. And if an environmental hazard actually exists, government spending priorities should be adjusted accordingly. But to the extent the state spends tax dollars on low-priority projects, less money will be available to remedy the worst systems.

Sewer projects aren't politically sexy. But proper maintenance of basic infrastructure is more important than wave pools and tennis courts. When the state subsidizes local infrastructure improvements, municipal officials are free to continue to ignore basic services in favor of building velodromes, health clubs and Internet networks.

Many experts now agree that the most pressing environmental challenge facing the Great Lakes is the proliferation of aquatic nuisance species. Exotic fish and plants compete with native species and may substantially alter aquatic ecosystems.

At the state Capitol on Oct. 3, for example, DEQ Director Russell Harding called for more intensive efforts to reduce the impact of Great Lakes invaders. "There is no greater threat to the Great Lakes than these exotic species," he said.

It is likely, then, that additional funding to address nuisance species would yield more environmental benefit than would a riverfront promenade or waterfront condos.

We also note that the CMI does little to address the 14 "areas of concern" designated by the U.S. EPA as the worst of Michigan's Great Lakes contamination. Federal regulators have essentially abandoned the cleanup program negotiated with Canada. As the General Accounting Office recently concluded: "Neither the Great Lakes National Program Office nor any other EPA office had devoted the necessary responsibility, authority, and resources to effectively coordinate and oversee cleanup efforts in the Great Lakes basin." [35]

An additional $35.1 million has been appropriated for a variety of other water protection programs, including:

  • $6.9 million in grants to 15 municipalities and nonprofit groups to identify and correct leaking septic systems, including financing for new sewer lines.

  • $6 million in grants to 14 local governments and nonprofit groups to protect cold-water trout streams, lakes and other so-called high-quality waters from contamination.

  • $8 million in grants to identify and eliminate illegal discharges into municipal storm sewer systems.

  • $8 million to restore and protect shorelines and riverbanks.

  • $5 million toward a matching fund requirement to qualify the state for a federal grant to reduce agricultural runoff.

  • $1.2 million to plug abandoned wells.