From the local to federal levels, officials who tend to the vital Lake St. Clair watershed say they're making progress. They're restoring natural habitat, installing an innovative monitoring system, developing a management plan.
But they're also worried about the future, about water levels, about the threat of invasive species. They're particularly worried about where they'll find the money to continue their efforts.
Those were the themes that emerged as the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Commission hosted the Fourth Binational Lake St. Clair Conference last week at MacRay Harbor in Harrison Township.
"Clearly we're talking about the water distribution system that affects the whole region," says Thomas Kalkofen, Macomb County Health Department director.
"You can call it ecology, conservation, preservation," says Stephen Gold, deputy health officer for the Macomb County Health Department. "You don't foul your own nest, even if you chlorinate it and clean it up."
Gold and Kalkofen were part of the two days of workshops that provided an overview of past, ongoing and planned efforts to protect the watershed.
"The issue is complex if you think about it. You're talking about a system right now that starts in Port Huron and goes through the city of Detroit to Wyandotte. There's a discussion to bring Monroe on board," Kalkofen says. "We also have Canada."
About 75 percent of the drainage for Lake St. Clair comes from the Canadian side, according to Jennifer Vincent, who works in the restoration programs division of Environment Canada. To the south of Sarnia along the St. Clair River, chemical plants populate the shoreline. But the United States has about 211 marinas on the river and lake compared to Ontario's 13.
"There is a dramatic difference between the two sides," Vincent says. In Michigan, several million people live in the watershed while just about 750,000 are on the Canadian side, which is mainly agricultural.
"From that standpoint alone, our issues are very different," Vincent says.
The two countries have a binational agreement for governing some water issues. That has led to coordination of protection and pollution control efforts, for example.
The current monitoring and protection efforts began with a group of Canadians, says Kalkofen.
"The project really has its beginnings in the foresight of the Native Americans at Walpole Island," Kalkofen says. "They asked and requested that they be notified when something entered the water that would have an effect on them. No one, at least to my knowledge, had asked that question."
In 1997 John Hertel, then Macomb County board chairman, "answered" the group's inquiry with the creation of a blue ribbon commission of 32 legislators, community leaders and residents. Later that year, the commission issued a report stating: "The Macomb County Health Department should enhance and maintain ongoing water quality monitoring programs and identify sources of contamination within the county."
From there came the Lake St. Clair Regional Monitoring Project and the Drinking Water Project, which now involve dozens of communities, private industry, citizens' groups and numerous levels of government. About $1.8 million has been invested in the project so far.
Kalkofen says the project initially had a tough sell. "Ultimately what they were able to do was put together a federal, state and local team to design and implement the (ongoing monitoring) project."
The Macomb County Water Quality Board and the St. Clair Watershed Management Committee were early participants, eventually joined by the state Department of Environmental Quality, the city of Detroit and others.
"We focused on the public health mission, the public health responsibility, and everyone accepted that and moved forward," Kalkofen says.
The real-time monitoring at 13 sites between Port Huron and Wyandotte is among the most innovative of the project's efforts. Data on levels of pollutants are collected and put on the Web with "alarm" systems to warn of problems.
"It's so treatment plant operators will know immediately and regulators and other authorities will know immediately when pollutants and contaminants threaten the water supply and so all interested members of the public will know what substances in what amounts are in the source supply," Gold says.
In the last 18 months, 32 monitoring instruments have been installed and require oversight, maintenance and data management, says Annette DeMaria, project manager with Environmental Consulting & Technology, a private contractor with the drinking water protection project. "Unfortunately it's not just like plugging in something and walking away. There is a lot of maintenance involved in any kind of real-time monitoring," she says. "And interpretation of the data is a challenge."
Sampling lines near Algonac, St. Clair and Mount Clemens have gas chromatograph mass spectrometers, one of the four different instruments used for water monitoring. At the St. Clair intake, technicians had to run the sample line a mile into the lake to properly position it with the water intake there.
The data from each of the areas are linked "so Port Huron can understand what's going on downriver and St. Clair can understand what's happening upstream," for example, DeMaria says. Warnings are sent for anomalies, potential spills and likely spills, determined when readings of certain levels reach 10, 50 or 90 percent of maximum contaminant levels.
DeMaria's company is contracted until September and she worries about the project's future.
Keeping it going
"I hope this will not die when we leave. It's not the health departments, the Congress, private contractors, the state, Homeland Security — none of these people can make this project work, only the folks at the local levels," she says. "If they want this system to work, it's going to take a lot of effort and resources to make that happen."
Kalkofen says the federal government is interested in the project and willing to support it, but much of the funding is tied to local matches that are getting tougher to find in the failing southeast Michigan economy. Some grants are available through Homeland Security, but officials predict those are a short-term solution. State officials with the Department of Environmental Quality are willing to participate but do not want to manage it or commit to long-term funding.
"I think both those decisions at the level of the feds and the state are the correct decisions," Kalkofen says. "It's a local issue. It's locally driven and it should be locally managed and now it should be locally funded."
Bill Parkus, environmental planner with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, predicts that, without some sort of new local funding mechanism, federal funding won't come at all. He says communities need to fund the project with local contributions measured by population, land area, taxable value perhaps with geographic tiers, or a combination of all of the factors.
"These funding options are presented to get the discussion going on these issues," Parkus says.
While the eventual funding formula is sure to be debated, the important aspect is that some agreement is reached so the drinking water project and regional monitoring of water quality can continue, says Russell LaBarge, chairman of the blue ribbon commission.
"We've got it in place," he says. "We want to keep it in place and make sure it continues."
Monitoring results can be viewed at llakestclairdata.net.Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]