FRESH, March 7, 2023: EPA Proposes Considering Tribal Treaty Rights in Water Quality Standards

March 7, 2023

Fresh is a biweekly newsletter from Circle of Blue that unpacks the biggest international, state, and local policy news stories facing the Great Lakes region today. Sign up for Fresh: A Great Lakes Policy Briefing, straight to your inbox, every other Tuesday.

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Fresh Editor

This Week’s Watersheds

  • After multiple missed deadlines, a judge has ordered the city of Flint to replace all remaining lead or steel water lines by August 1. 
  • As PFAS pollution in Lake Superior threatens Ojibwe fishing practices, a new EPA proposal would require states to consider treaty rights in water quality standards.  
  • An expanded program will provide over 1,000 gallons of water per person per month to low-income households in Detroit.
  • In an effort to slow coastal erosion, $74 million will be used to build islands and rubble reefs in Illinois Beach State Park.

A new national report gave Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin failing grades for their efforts to limit lead contamination in school drinking water. 

“Lead damages kids’ brains, promotes ADHD and shaves off IQ points. There is no safe amount.” — Ron Saff, professor of medicine, Florida State University College of Medicine.

The report, published jointly by the Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, assigned letter grades to states based on their policies to limit lead contamination in school drinking water. Twenty-seven states — including Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, all of which had no laws or regulations at all — received an ‘F’ grade. Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana were given ‘D’ grades. These states have water testing requirements but unclear, or entirely nonexistent, remediation procedures when lead is detected. 

The poor grades and lack of policies are especially jarring for officials in Michigan, Michigan Radio reports, where nearly a decade ago the Flint water crisis began. 

But despite these low marks, city-level efforts and regional ultimatums in some Great Lakes states were highlighted in the report. Detroit Public Schools were praised for installing “more than 500 new water stations with lead-removing filters,” and statewide, the “filter first” legislation “would require schools and daycares to install ‘filtered drinking water outlets and on-tap filters and ensure non-filtered outlets are removed or not used,’” Michigan Radio reports. If the legislation passes, the report promised Michigan’s grade would rise from an ‘F’ to an ‘A.’ 

And in Minnesota, if a reintroduced bill requiring lead testing and remediation procedures in schools also moves forward, the report’s grade for the state would increase to a ‘C.’

Fresh from the Great Lakes News Collaborative

  • Nessel can try again to return Line 5 lawsuit to state court — Bridge Michigan
  • State of Michigan distributes millions of dollars to fight damaging invasive species — Michigan Radio
  • Hope springs eternal for Michigan legislator who champions drinking water equity — Great Lakes Now

The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader. We work together to produce news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work here.

Ojibwe fishing practices on Lake Superior compromised by PFAS and toxic chemicals

The presence of toxic chemicals in the Great Lakes is threatening treaty-protected Indigenous fishing practices, Wisconsin Watch reports. Trace amounts of mercury and PCBs, and a growing PFAS presence, are compromising the health of both the water and fish caught in Lake Superior by Ojibwe fishermen. The tribe says that the pollution represents an “encroachment” on their right to fish on Lake Superior, called Anishinaabe Gitchigami in the Ojibwe language.

Along with the impacts of climate change, the contaminants affect subsistence harvesting, cultural practice, and business, Wisconsin Watch reports. Mercury and PCBs prompt fish consumption advisories, and PFAS “forever chemicals,” of essentially any amount, are unsafe for human consumption, the EPA ruled last year. Under such guidelines, a Duke University-Environmental Working Group study that sampled freshwater fish in the Great Lakes found that nearly every fish caught would be “considered unsafe to eat.”

A proposed EPA rule, which accepted public comment until March 6, “would require states to account for treaty rights, such as fishing and wild rice gathering, when adopting water quality standards under the Clean Water Act,” according to Wisconsin Watch. States and tribal governments would be forced to act on water bodies deemed unsafe for drinking or recreation — in the past, tribes say, the states have not been forced to uphold their end of this relationship.

In the News

MAN-MADE ISLANDS: In what is the “largest capital project” ever for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, $74 million of taxpayer money will be spent to slow the erosion of the state’s last beach-ridge shoreline along Lake Michigan, in Illinois Beach State Park. In some areas, fluctuating lake levels, wind, and excessive runoff are vanquishing nearly 100 feet of sand per year. This loss of sand destabilizes the shoreline’s ridges, some of which are 3,000 years old and sustain marshlands, migratory bird habitat, and many threatened species, The Center Square reports. Man-made islands, and 22 rubble reef breakwaters that “act like speed bumps to slow down the impact of the wave,” will be constructed to preserve the shoreline, and provide native fish with additional habitat. 

LEAD INTERVENTION: More than 10,000 old pipes have been replaced in Flint since the city’s water crisis began, but at least 1,000 addresses still have not had their pipes inspected for corrosion, AP reports. A judge has now set August 1 as the deadline for Flint to do so, and “replace any remaining lead or steel water lines.” AP also reports that, following repairs and excavations that have been completed, the city has left residents’ lawns and yards dug-up and unrestored. Per the same judge’s ruling, Flint has until May 1 to determine which yards are in need of repair. 

Looking Ahead

LOWER WATER BILLS: An extension of a program that began last year — which lowered monthly bills, eliminated water debt, and fixed plumbing for low-income Detroit residents — will now provide households with an additional 1,125 gallons of water per person per month. The program, a collaboration between Detroit and the Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, is similar to those that already exist in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee, Great Lakes Echo reports

According to the Echo, “households earning below 135 percent of the Federal Poverty level” – about 85 percent of the program’s participants – pay $18 per month for water. In Detroit, the cost of water has risen by 120 percent in the past decade.

Upcoming Events

March 7 — 33rd Annual Great Lakes Conference: Managing Fisheries and Exploring Islands — register

March 9 — Great Lakes Day 2023 — register

March 10 — 2023 Michigan Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society Conference — register

Other News

  • Lake Ontario: New York state pledged $3.7 million to complete four flood-resiliency projects on the shores of Lake Ontario, CNY Central reports
  • Lake Erie: Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio announced $100 million in federal funding for four projects “that are critical to the economic development and environmental health” along Lake Erie’s shoreline, WTVG Toledo reports.
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