This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
In the United States, officials in Mississippi’s capital lifted a citywide boil-water advisory that had been in place for a month, after two winter storms crippled the water system. The deep freeze ruptured 126 water mains in Jackson, where some residents were without running water for weeks. The city’s aging water system needs significant repairs. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who represents Mississippi in Congress, introduced a bill to secure at least $47 million in federal funds. But Jackson’s mayor says that a full makeover could cost nearly $1 billion.
Also in the United States, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara have examined the physical links between rivers and aquifers. According to their study, published in the journal Nature, more U.S. rivers may be leaking water into the ground than previously realized. The study found that more than two out of three rivers are losing water in this way. This is a particular occurrence in regions that are arid, have flat topography, or have extensive groundwater pumping. Rivers lose water to aquifers when groundwater levels fall below the level of the river. That imbalance causes water to flow underground away from the river. Debra Perrone, a study co-author, said the research underscores the importance of thinking about groundwater and surface water as one connected resource, rather than as separate ones.
In California, state regulators are developing the world’s first guidelines for small plastic particles in drinking water. CalMatters reports that the State Water Resources Control Board faces a number of hurdles as it aims to issue a preliminary microplastics standard by July 1. The standard was ordered by the Legislature. There is no uniform testing method for identifying the number of particles in water and there is little scientific understanding of the health impacts of those particles. Because of this, the standard will not be an enforceable regulation. Instead it is designed to inform water providers about risks. Critics point out that bottled water and airborne particles could be greater sources of human exposure to microplastics.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on the role of Indigenous treaty rights in one of Michigan’s largest environmental conflicts.
On any given day, Jacques LeBlanc, Jr. spends as many as 14 hours on the water catching whitefish. He’s out on his boat by the time the sun breaks the horizon over the Great Lakes, moving between Michigan, Huron, and Superior for the best spots. In this part of northern Michigan, at the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula, fishing is a staple of LeBlanc’s Bay Mills Indian Community, one of the Sault Ste. Marie bands of Chippewa.
Fishing on the Great Lakes is a daunting endeavor. It’s threatened by the changing climate, disturbed by invasive species, vulnerable to unruly weather and daily operation costs. But just south of LeBlanc’s tribal community lies another impediment that endangers his way of life. It is Line 5, the twin petroleum pipelines that run for five miles across the Straits of Mackinac, hidden beneath 100 feet of water. The state of Michigan has conducted encompassing reviews, finding that the owner, the Canadian company Enbridge Energy, has a history of safety violations that put the Great Lakes at risk.
Because of this, Line 5 is the source of Michigan’s most significant legal and political confrontation over environmental safety and energy transport.
Indigenous communities like LeBlanc’s have long contested Line 5, but it’s only recently that the state has addressed this. Last November, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer revoked the easement that allows the pipelines to operate, and ordered Enbridge to halt oil transport by May of this year. Cited in the revocation was something new in the history of Line 5: Michigan’s administration officially acknowledged that Indigenous Chippewa and Ottawa treaty rights were a factor in its decision to close the pipeline and protect Great Lakes ecology and fisheries .
The Treaty of Washington, from 1836, covers the eastern part of the Upper Peninsula and a western chunk of northern Michigan, running along Lake Michigan to Thunder Bay River. The area encompasses the Bay Mills Indian Community, and also the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The five tribes form the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, an inter-tribal management body for dealing with the 1836 treaty rights. Whitney Gravelle is in-house counsel and tribal attorney for the Bay Mills Indian Community. She told Circle of Blue “We ceded almost 14 million acres of territory. But in return we asked for certain rights, the most important being our continued relationship with the water and our right to fish and provide food for our families.”
The treaty reserves the right for the Indigenous Anishinaabe people of Michigan (meaning the Ottawa and Chippewa) to hunt and fish on any ceded land and water. It’s a right that is jeopardized by Line 5. University of Michigan researchers used computer simulations to model the consequences of a Line 5 rupture. Their results, published in 2016, found that the turbulent Straits are the worst place in the Great Lakes for an oil spill. Depending on the size of the spill and weather conditions, oil could spread across the shores of Michigan and Ontario. For this reason and others, said Gravelle, a spill in the Great Lakes could have an irreversible impact on the tribe’s way of life. It wouldn’t merely threaten the fishery. It would also disrupt the Anishinaabe role of protecting the water, the land, and the future of these resources, which, according to the treaty, must be guaranteed for centuries to come.
Matthew L.M. Fletcher is the director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center and a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. He said that in this context, the inclusion is significant. Fletcher said “It’s an acknowledgment of an implied right to a homeland that Indigenous people negotiated in the 1836 treaty. Fifty years ago, in the state of Michigan, the government would have told everyone the treaties are meaningless, that they had been aggregated by history. Now they’re in much better shape.”
Jacques LeBlanc, Jr. grew up fishing, learning from his father until he began his own business nearly a decade ago. His grandfather is Albert “Big Abe” LeBlanc, a tribal legend who back in 1978 fought and won in federal court for the reaffirmation of Chippewa and Ottawa treaty fishing rights in Michigan. Now, more than four decades since Big Abe stood in court, fishing is once again at risk.
The Straits of Mackinac is the place where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet, between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The narrow band of water is a restless one, with currents that NOAA describes as complex and variable with the ability to be extraordinarily fast. The governor’s Notice of Revocation and Termination of the Easement says that a pipeline leak in the Straits could spill thousands of gallons of crude oil into either lake. Such a spill has the potential to damage hundreds of miles of shoreline. Spilled oil would cause both short-term and long-term damage to the ecosystem and to varieties of fish in the Great Lakes. It would affect coastal wetlands, wild rice growth, and the spawning of lake sturgeon and trout. Because of that, a disaster also would pose a serious cultural, economic, and ecological threat to Michigan tribes, including their treaty-protected rights.
For the Bay Mills Indian Community, the importance of water goes back thousands of years. Their identity is deeply rooted in the water and the land. When the Anishinaabe first traveled to the area that is now called Michigan, they were advised by a medicine man to go to where food grows on water. They journeyed west until they found [man-NO-man] manoomin, native wild rice, rising from the water, and there they settled down. According to the Ojibwe creation story, North America is Turtle Island. At the center, at the turtle’s heart, are the Great Lakes, where the Anishinaabe found home.
LeBlanc says that since he began fishing in his youth, the lakes have changed dramatically. Fish stocks have been depleted, invasive species have moved in, and winters and water levels have been unstable. Line 5 has numbered among the greatest threats to LeBlanc’s home and the water for years, particularly with Enbridge’s recent history of close calls and violations. In 2019, a ship anchor struck and dented the pipeline, and independent inspections found that the metal surface of the pipeline, built in 1953, is corroding.
There have been other incidents elsewhere in Michigan. In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline in southern Michigan ruptured and poured nearly 1 million gallons of toxic oil into the Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history and Enbridge spent over $1.2 billion for cleanup, plus nearly $200 million in fines and penalties.
Since the governor’s revocation of the easement for Line 5, Enbridge has filed countersuits. It asserts that Line 5 is safe, and vows to keep it operating.
The inclusion of treaty rights in the revocation of the pipeline easement may have implications for other state environmental policy issues such as mining, although it is immensely complicated. According to Fletcher of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center, Michigan has a history of not talking to the Indigenous communities. And recent consultations, while a good start, are still inadequate to the tribes. The current administration and the tribes share some common interests, including clean water in the Great Lakes, but state politics play a large factor as well.
As for Line 5, says Fletcher, it’s really just a matter of when it’ll be gone. As he sees it, this way of generating energy is on the way out, but it’s going to be a fight.
LeBlanc is also hopeful. Although Enbridge refuses to comply with the easement revocation from the Whitmer administration, LeBlanc believes in efforts of the Bay Mills team and the other Indigenous communities involved. Just like his grandfather in court all those years ago, the 1836 Treaty of Washington is proving to be an important force.
Tribal attorney Gravelle says that the Bay Mills Indian Community knows what it’s like to lose a treasured resource. They don’t want anyone else to lose one either. She said “There’s still a lot of work to do to ensure the Great Lakes are around for the next seven generations. We finally feel like we have people behind our back and we’re ready to move forward.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent news that gives a voice to water. Please visit circleofblue.org
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