State of the Beach/State Reports/MI/Water Quality

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Michigan Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access77
Water Quality66
Beach Erosion7-
Erosion Response-6
Beach Fill4-
Shoreline Structures4 3
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas26
Website6-

Water Quality Monitoring Program

BEACH Act
The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. In recent years, the total funding available for BEACH Act grants has been about $9.5 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there was also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. Again, it was restored at the last minute as part of a Continuing Resolution. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. Unfortunately, in 2017 the situation is even more dire. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. Michigan was eligible for a $262,000 grant in fiscal year 2016. Local funding requirements for the beach monitoring and notification program is at least $33,000 (matching funds are required for BEACH Act grant monies) and the total amount of local funding is estimated to be between $200,000 and $300,000 each year.

Much of the following discussion is taken from NRDC's report Testing the Waters, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, June 2014. NRDC's report evaluates beach monitoring data relative to EPA's recommended Beach Action Value (BAV). The BAV is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. The EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions."

NRDC ranked Michigan 7th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 6% of samples exceeded national standards for designated beach areas in 2012.

Michigan has more than 600 public beaches stretching along more than 3,200 miles of Great Lakes coastline. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) administers the state's BEACH Act grant. Beachgoers can learn about beach closures and advisories on the Michigan BeachGuard website.

Water Quality Challenges and Improvements

Lake St. Clair Metropark Beach

Macomb County is installing green infrastructure to reduce stormwater runoff and improve the water quality at Lake St. Clair. With funds from a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant, Macomb County will remove 8,500 square feet of parking lot surface at Lake St. Clair Metropark beach and replace it with a 15,800-square-foot porous-pavement driveway and 11,500-square-foot rain garden including native vegetation. Under the parking lot there will be deep swales to intercept the water, thereby preventing it from directly entering Lake St. Clair. The project is designed to increase infiltration, resulting in lower E. coli levels and fewer beach closures. In 2013 only 4% of samples from this beach exceeded EPA's tougher new Beach Action Value standards.

Chrysler Park Beach

In 2012, Chrysler Park Beach had the highest exceedance rate (29%) of any Michigan beach. With help from a $500,000 grant from the U.S. EPA, a project is currently under way to to reduce the number of E.coli exccedances and reduce beach closures. The project includes planting geese-deterring grasses to reduce the amount of feces flowing to the water, and re-channeling stormwater into rain gardens for infiltration. In 2013, only 2% of samples exceeded EPA's tougher new Beach Action Value standards.

Bryant Park Beach

To protect swimmers from historically high E. coli levels at Bryant Park, The Watershed Center and Traverse City partnered with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality using funds from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to install a new stormwater runoff filtering system. This project includes a series of tanks to remove trash and sediment before the water enters a large underground filtering system. The goal is for bacteria, oils, and other pollutants to be broken down by soil microbes.

Testing has determined that E. coli in the stormwater runoff is likely caused by feces from pets as well as wildlife such as raccoons and deer. Due to increased development in the area and poor design of the stormwater system, runoff frequently would overload the old infrastructure, washing over the beach and eroding large amounts of sand into the bay. The new system should help to reduce E. coli levels and protect swimmers from bacteria.

Other green infrastructure projects are under way at Marquette South Beach, Sherman Park, Four Mile Beach, East Bay Park Beach, Suttons Bay Beach, New Buffalo City Beach, Brimley State Park, and Tawas Bay Beaches.

Using Dogs to Chase Away Gulls

In a recent study, researchers assigned Border Collies to 200-meter stretches of beach along the shores of Lake Michigan, which were patrolled for parts of the summer season. Half way through the dogs were switched to untreated sections. Over the course of the summers of 2012 and 2013, scientists recorded the number of birds at each section of beach while water and sand samples were collected and tested for E. coli. They found that the bacterial counts were significantly lower on those sandy stretches where the dogs had kept the gulls at bay. The research was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in May 2014.

Rapid Test Methods

Current approved methods for determining fecal indicator bacteria counts in beachwater depend on growth of cultures and take at least 24 hours to complete. Because of this, swimmers do not know until the next day if the water they swam in was contaminated. There is a great deal of interest in technologies that can provide same-day beachwater quality results. After field testing qPCR, which identifies genetic sequences in order to enumerate bacteria, in 2011, a few selected beaches in Michigan began using qPCR to test for enteroccocus in 2012. The Bay County Health Department and Saginaw Valley University are partnering to use qPCR to monitor the Bay City Recreation Area. Several other health departments are using the immunomagnetic separation-adenosine triphosphate (IMS-ATP) rapid method to monitor beaches

Several beaches are using qPCR for microbial source tracking (MST) but not for routine monitoring. Beaches included in this MST effort include Whites Beach in Arenac County; Bay City State Recreation Area in Bay County; Four Mile Beach and Sugar Island Township Park Beach in Chippewa County; Caseville County Park Beach in Huron County; Grand Haven City Beach, Grand Haven State Park, and Rosy Mound Recreation Area in Ottawa County; Pier Park in Wayne County; Traverse City State Park Beach, Bryant Park Beach, and East Bay Park Beach in Grand Traverse County; and St. Clair Shores Veterans Memorial Park Beach and H.C.M.A. Metropolitan Beach Metropark in Macomb County. The procedure for determining whether to issue an advisory or a closure on the basis of predicted water quality results at these beaches is undergoing further testing and refinement during the 2013 beach season. In 2012, notifications at the beaches testing models were based on traditional culture techniques, not on predicted water quality.

Statewide Implementation of Sanitary Surveys

Sanitary surveys are systematic investigations that are used to identify potential sources of human sewage pollution. In 2012, at 238 beaches throughout Michigan, 3,804 routine surveys were conducted when samples were collected, and in-depth sanitary surveys will now be done annually. This effort, funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, is critical in identifying sources of beachwater contamination, especially during rain events.

Monitoring

Sampling Practices

The monitoring season runs from April to October. Sampling practices, locations, standards, and notification protocols and practices are uniform throughout the state. Samples are taken 1 foot below the surface in water that is 3 to 6 feet deep. Beaches are selected for monitoring on the basis of location, with priority given to more frequently used beaches, those with a history of bacterial contamination, and those in close proximity to a known bacterial contamination source.

At the discrection of the local health department, the monitoring frequency of a beach that has been closed or placed under advisory can be increased. In most cases, resampling is conducted the day a beach is closed or placed under advisory. States that monitor more frequently after an advisory is issued will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling frequency did not increase after an advisory or closing was issued.

Closings and Advisories

Standards and Procedures

Michigan issues both advisories and closings, using a geometric mean standard of 130 cfu/100 ml for all the individual samples taken during five or more sampling events representatively spread over a 30-day period, and a daily sampling event standard of 300 cfu/100 ml. At each sampling event, three or more samples are taken and the geometric mean of the sampling results is compared with the daily standard. Resamples to confirm an exceedance are sometimes conducted at Michigan's Great Lakes beaches before an advisory or closing is issued.

Some Michigan health departments issue preemptive rainfall advisories, applying standards that are based on rainfall amount. Beach advisories and closures may be issued for riptides, spills, harmful algal blooms, and other potential threats to public health.

As discussed above, some Michigan counties are starting to use models that predict beachwater quality. Such models are not useful at all beaches, but where they are, they provide a cost-effective means of issuing notifications based on current water quality conditions rather than on conditions that existed the day the last sample was collected. The models are constructed using historical data about conditions such as wave height, tide, temperature, and wind speed, combined with monitoring data.

Other Monitoring Program Information

The MDEQ Surface Water Quality Division (MSWQD) maintains a website that has a wealth of information about water quality in Michigan. The Michigan Surface Water Information Management (MiSWIM) System is an interactive map-based system that allows users to view information about Michigan's surface water. It was developed through a cooperative effort by the Michigan Department of Information Technology (DIT), Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Users are able to view and download data collected by the DEQ and DNR from surface water monitoring sites located throughout Michigan.

The Michigan Water Quality Standards (WQS) contain numerical criteria for E.coli as an indicator of the potential human health risk from partial and total body contact recreation, which is a designated use of the waters of the state. Although the public bathing beach section of the Public Health Code references the WQS, the Code does not authorize the state to monitor beaches. Furthermore, the Code states that local health departments may test and otherwise evaluate the quality of the water at public beaches. The authority to close public beaches also rests with the local health departments. The DEQ's primary role is to compile data to evaluate overall water quality, and to support local health departments who use the information for to assess the need for beach closings.

Annual beach monitoring reports are available online, including the 2011 Report.

The Beach home page contains a county-by-county searchable database on the water quality public beaches and recreational-use waterways. Here you will find information about beach closings, monitoring efforts and E.coli test results. This information is entered and maintained by local health department offices.

The Great Lakes Commission (GLC), in partnership with LimnoTech and the Great Lakes states, has developed a free smartphone application that provides convenient, public access to swim advisories and other environmental conditions information for more than 1,800 beaches in the Great Lakes region. Funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the myBeachCast application (app) retrieves locational and advisory data for Great Lakes and inland lake beaches in the eight Great Lakes states. The app also features real-time and forecasted weather and lake conditions (e.g., water temperature, wave heights, wind speed/direction) and nearshore marine forecasts, drawn from the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). myBeachCast allows users to discover local beaches based on the user’s location, view beaches and their status on a map, save favorite beaches, and get driving directions. To download myBeachCast, go to http://beachcast.glin.net.

Information on the Beach Monitoring Program in Oakland County can be found online.

An article in the Muskegon Chronicle on May 30, 2006 by Sarah Kellogg pointed out that monitoring in the state is inconsistent and incomplete. According to DEQ, there are 472 public beaches on inland lakes and 411 public beaches on the Great Lakes in Michigan. In 2004, local officials tested 290, or 61 percent of the inland lake beaches and 204, or 50 percent of the Great Lakes beaches. The state announced it would spend nearly $120,000 of Clean Michigan Initiative funds during summer 2006 to help local health agencies monitor water quality at 79 Great Lakes, state park and local beaches. These grants have generally continued each year since then.

Surfrider Foundation's Lake Michigan Chapter conducted a water testing program in the ice-free, off-season months of Sept.- Dec. and March- May. Their water testing program was implemented in partnership with the GVSU’s Annis Water Resource Institute (AWRI). AWRI Biologist and SFLMC member Matt Cooper lead this ‘first of its kind" study to investigate water quality in Lake Michigan during the months when surfers are most likely to be in the water. More info.

Through the Saginaw Bay Coastal Initiative (SBCI), the DEQ and other state agencies is working with citizens, local government officials, and multiple regional and federal agencies to develop and implement a comprehensive approach to promoting environmentally sound economic development and resource restoration in the Saginaw Bay coastal areas by (among other things) working with local interests to improving water quality in Saginaw Bay and its associated waterways. The Website has multiple documents under "Beach and Wetlands."

The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) Strategy identifies coastal health as a priority recognizing the significance of beaches to the economic well-being, health and quality of life of the region's citizens. The GLRC Clean Beaches Initiative is an effort to help encourage the implementation of best beach management practices, including the use of sanitary surveys and actions to remediate contamination sources, as outlined by the GLRC Strategy. The GLRC Clean Beaches Initiative workgroup is comprised of federal, state, local, and tribal partners.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), through its Great Lakes Beach Health Initiative, has been conducting research to advance the science of beach health in the Great Lakes for over a decade. The overall mission of this work is to provide science-based information and methods that will allow beach managers to more accurately make beach closure and advisory decisions, understand the sources and physical processes affecting beach contaminants, and understand how science-based information can be used to mitigate and restore beaches and protect the public. The work consists of four science elements—real-time assessments; pathogens and microbial source tracking; coastal processes; and data analysis, interpretation, and communication.

National Ocean Service/National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) has carried out many water quality research projects in Michigan.

Water Quality Contact

Shannon Briggs
Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Environment
Email: briggss4@michigan.gov

Beach Closures

The MIDEQ posts closings/advisories and monitoring results on its website.

An article in the Holland Sentinel on May 14, 2011 stated that Ottawa County would no longer issue public health advisories when testing indicates high E. Coli levels. The county claims that the typical 24 hour delay before test results are available, combined with the fact that subsequent sampling frequently reveals lower E. Coli levels, makes health advisories meaningless. The county will continue to post results on their website and allow the public to make an "informed decision" on whether or not to swim based on that information.

NRDC reported:

In 2013, Michigan reported 642 coastal beaches, 237 of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 6% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 190 E. coli bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml freshwater in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.

The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in 2013 were Singing Bridge Beach (50%), Hammel Beach Road Access (45%), Bessinger Road Beach (31%), and Whites Beach, all in Arenac County (30%); and South Haven South Beach in Van Buren County (29%).


For a bar chart showing a 5-year water quality trend, see NRDC's report.

The Beach home page contains beach closure information on a county-by-county basis.

An article in thetimesherald.com on June 5, 2011 discussed problems caused by the inherent delays in getting timely results from water testing for beaches in Lake Huron and the St. Clair River in St. Clair County. The article also raised concerns about continuing funding for the water testing program.

In June 2013, U.S. EPA released its latest data about beach closings and advisories for the 2012 swimming season. Note that for some states the data is incomplete, making state-to-state or year-to-year comparisons difficult. Here's EPA's BEACH Report for Michigan's 2012 Swimming Season. EPA no longer publishes this report.

The United States Geological Survey maintains a website, Michigan Water Science Center. This site is a valuable source of information including current projects, online reports, publications, maps, real-time water conditions, and educational outreach material for teachers and students.

The Michigan Sea Grant website has some information on water quality in Michigan. The site reports on current research involving an Environmental Monitoring System for Lake St. Clair. The Lake St. Clair water system (the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River) provides drinking water to more than four million people, and supports residential development, recreation, and industry. Despite its economic and cultural importance, Lake St. Clair's water quality has become degraded to the point of posing a health risk on some occasions. The goal of the research is to develop a near real-time Environmental Monitoring Network (EMN) to provide timely predictions of local water quality conditions on Lake St. Clair that pose potential threats to human health. The EMN will incorporate: satellite data from across the Lake St. Clair basin and watershed; a high-resolution hydrodynamic computer model; and an automated meteorological buoy deployed in the lake to provide current information on winds, air and water temperature and lake current measurements. Project researchers will use data from the EMN to create a website to provide current lake information (from the past 24 hours) and forecasts of lake water quality conditions at public beaches. The site will provide valuable scientific information to lake managers, policy-makers, and the general public.

The Coastwatch lake surface temperature reporting system website is interesting.

Storm Drains and Sewage Outfalls

Information on the location or number of storm drains or sewage outfalls in Michigan was not readily available.

The Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant is the nation's largest single-site sewage facility. It can reportedly handle 1.5 billion gallons of sewage and storm water daily from nearly all of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Despite this capacity, it can become so overwhelmed during major rain events that it is forced to discharge inadequately treated sewage into the Detroit and Rouge rivers, which flow into Lake Erie.

In May 2009 the giant Upper Rouge Tunnel combined sewer overflow control project was canceled by Detroit city officials worried about residents' ability to pay increased sewer fees to build the $1.2 billion project.

In February 2010 it was announced that the more than 20 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage dumped annually into metro Detroit waterways would be reduced by up to 20% under an ambitious project under state review. The 25-year, $814-million project by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is designed to upgrade the aging system. DWSD is asking the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment to approve the plan, which includes a 5.5-mile tunnel to store excess storm water that often overwhelms the system, forcing billions of gallons of sewage to be dumped into lakes, rivers and streams. The updates are being required by the state Department of Natural Resources and Environment after the city scrapped a $1.2- billion project in 2009 to build a 7-mile-long Upper Rouge Tunnel to store excess storm water. The project's cornerstone is a $484-million storage tunnel between Warren Avenue and McNichols in Detroit to capture excess storm water. The project also includes $50 million in so-called green alternatives, including replacing vacant structures with grass and trees to absorb storm water.

In March 2014 it was announced that more than 90 communities would share $97 million in grants and loans to fix aging or overwhelmed sewer systems. The maximum $2 million per local government is intended to help undertake costly planning and engineering for major infrastructure maintenance and improvements. The money was generated under a 2002 bonding authority and designated for sewer projects under a 2012 law. Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed using another $97 million for a second round of grants in the following fiscal year. Interest in the new program is high. When the application period opened in December 2013, the agency received 673 applications totaling $541 million in requests. Officials used a random draw to choose recipients and did not differentiate among applicants as long as they qualified. The state will move down the list next year.

A Great Lakes Sewage Report Card was published in November 2006 by Sierra Legal Defence Fund (now Ecojustice). The report states that over 24 billion gallons of sewage and wastewater discharge are dumped into the Great Lakes every year. Detroit, Michigan received the lowest grade in the survey, D, for its discharges into Lake Erie. The city receiving the highest grade was Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The MSWQD Website provides useful background and contact information about Combined Sewer Overflows and Sanitary Sewer Overflows:

A combined sewer is a sewer that is designed to carry both sanitary sewage and storm water runoff. A discharge from a combined sewer system occurs in response to rainfall and/or snowmelt because the carrying capacity of the sewer system is exceeded. These discharges do not receive all treatment that is available and utilized under ordinary dry weather conditions (normally during dry weather conditions the wastewater is transported to a wastewater treatment facility where it receives appropriate treatment prior to discharge). Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) differ from combined sewer overflows (CSOs). CSOs are overflows from older sewer systems designed to carry both domestic and storm water loads. SSOs are discharges of raw or inadequately treated sewage from municipal separate sanitary sewer systems, which are designed to carry domestic sanitary sewage but not storm water. These overflows may also contain industrial wastewater that is present in the sewer system. When an SSO occurs, raw sewage may be released into basements, city streets, properties, rivers, and streams. SSOs are illegal and often constitute a serious environmental and public health threat. The number of communities that have SSO problems is not known. The frequency and duration of SSOs are often unknown. For the past 20 years, the MDEQ and its predecessor agency have been working with municipalities across the state to identify SSOs and correct SSO discharges.


Statewide information on CSOs is available on the website of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. This website contains annual CSO/SSO reports.

In 2006, Grand Rapids officials stated that combined sewer overflows into the Grand River had been reduced by 99 percent since the early 1990s, and that the city was on target to eliminate these spills into the Grand River by 2019. Grand Rapids discharged 32 million gallons in 2006. In contrast, officials in Lansing stated in 2007 that it would take another 15 years (until 2022) to complete its program to eliminate most combined sewer overflows. Lansing sewer overflows have been reduced about 33 percent to "only" 392 million gallons in 2006.

In early 2007 U.S. Steel agreed to a $350,000 settlement with Michigan DEQ to resolve some 170 water quality violations for dumping into the Detroit River since the company took over facilities on Zug Island, Ecorse and River Rouge from National Steel in 2003. Most of the problems evidently relate to issues neglected by National Steel due to their bankruptcy. U.S. Steel claims it has made "tens of millions" of improvements since taking over operations.

In May 2009 an article in the Bay City Times stated that more than 1 billion gallons of partially treated sewage had been dumped into the Saginaw River (which flows into Lake Huron) so far in 2009. The river reached the billion mark in late April, according to a Bay City Times tally of combined sewer overflows, or CSOs. It happened after more than 3 inches of rain overwhelmed the combined sewer system in Saginaw, sending a mix of almost 290 million gallons of sanitary sewage and stormwater from retention basins to the river. Saginaw's system has been the largest contributor of CSOs to the river - about 904 million gallons.

In late June 2009 it was reported that Saginaw had discharged a total of 54.37 million gallons from its retention basins into the Saginaw River in mid-June after a period of heavy rains.

Other Pollution Incidents

Up near the U.S./Canadian border, the beaches of Michigan's Sugar Island in the St. Mary's River saw a surge of raw sewage during the summer of 2006, forcing beach closures. Michigan officials blamed the East End sewage treatment plant Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, while Canadian officials argued that the sludge bubbled up from a river bed made toxic from decades of run-off. The East End plant is in the process of a $53-million upgrade intended to lessen the discharge into the river.

An estimated 15 million gallons of raw sewage (about 5 million in actual sewage and 10 million in stormwater) was released into Pere Marquette Lake and eventually Lake Michigan as a result of the washed-out force main at Ludington’s South Madison Street in June 2008.

Hundreds of pounds of household garbage washed onto Lake Michigan shores in July 2008, leading to an investigation by the Coast Guard and the temporary closure of a public beach. Trash that apparently came ashore overnight on July 13 was strewn along a 10-mile stretch in Mason and Manistee counties in Michigan's northwestern Lower Peninsula. Junk piles up to 8 inches high were reported at a beach in the city of Manistee. Garbage also washed onto private beaches Tuesday in Holland, more than 100 miles south of Manistee. The trash in Mason and Manistee counties included medical waste such as prescription-drug bottles and hypodermic syringes, authorities said. But most of the garbage consisted of ordinary household rubbish such as candy wrappers, cigarette packages and plastic food utensils, said Matt Fournier, environmental health sanitarian for the local health department. The Manistee beach was closed while a cleanup crew and workers from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hauled away three truckloads.

A series of articles in the Great Lakes Echo discuss stormwater and municipal wastewater issues throughout the Great Lakes that are impacting recreational water quality.

Illicit Connections and Septic Systems

Illicit connections are connections of sewage sources to a storm drain system. These may be deliberate or inadvertent. Many municipalities conduct illicit connection surveys to check for and correct such connections. Wayne County Department of Environment, Watershed Management Division has developed a document Sherlocks of Stormwater, Effective Investigation Techniques for Illicit Connection and Discharge Detection.

The Barry-Eaton District Health Department has a Time of Sale or Transfer (TOST) program to inspect water wells and septic systems. The report for the first three years of the TOST program was released in February 2011. In summary, nearly ¼ of inspected wells and septics were found to be failing. Corrections to these systems has prevented an estimated 26.7 million gallons of sewage from being discharged into local waterways. The photos accompanying the report are very informative (and terrifying).

An article in the Great Lakes Echo on June 21, 2011 Failing septic systems an increasing health concern discussed the TOST program, similar programs in other areas, and the large number of failing septic systems in south-central and southwest Michigan. This article is part of a series that explores septic tank issues in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Another article in the Great Lakes Echo on September 24, 2015 stated that Michigan is the only state in the U.S. without a uniform statewide code regulating septic tanks. The article also stated that one hundred percent of 64 rivers tested in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula tested positive for fecal matter, according to a recent Michigan State University study. The study found a direct correlation between the number of septic tanks in an area and the amount of bacteria and pathogens from human sewage in nearby rivers. The Detroit Free Press published an article in January 2017 that stated:

Up to 1.4 million septic systems — individual waste disposal systems for homes or businesses that aren't connected to a municipal sewer line — still remain in Michigan. More than 21 million homes in the U.S. still use them. In Michigan — the only state in the U.S. that doesn't regulate septic systems on a statewide basis — septic systems are putting 280 million gallons per day of wastewater into the ground.


Water Quality Contact (Runoff and Outfalls)

Mark Fife
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
Surface Water Quality Division
Storm Water Program
P.O. Box 30438
Lansing, MI 48909
Email: fifem@michigan.gov

Perception of Causes

Potential sources include combined sewer overflows (CSOs), leaking septic tanks, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and releases of boat wastewater holding tanks into the lake.

U.S. EPA and federal, state and local beach program partners developed standardized beach sanitary survey forms in 2007. These forms assist beach managers with a consistent approach to identify pollution sources, share information, and plan source remediation. The forms were successfully piloted by 61 Great Lakes beaches during the 2007 beach season, through EPA funding. The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) Clean Beaches Initiative is focused on broadening the use of these standard sanitary survey forms throughout the Great Lakes region. Beach managers, cities, tribes, and citizen volunteers are encouraged to use the standard sanitary survey forms and take this first critical step towards ensuring clean and safe beaches.

An article in the Great Lakes Echo in December 2012 discussed many of the water quality problems in the Great Lakes, including bacterial pollution, algal blooms and invasive species.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) requires Michigan to prepare a biennial report on the quality of its water resources as the principal means of conveying water quality protection/monitoring information to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the United States Congress. The Integrated Report satisfies the listing requirements of Section 303(d) and the reporting requirements of Section 305(b) and 314 of the CWA. The Section 303(d) list includes Michigan water bodies that are not attaining one or more designated use and require the establishment of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) to meet and maintain Water Quality Standards. The DEQ website now has the final 2012 Integrated Report and the Draft 2014 Clean Water Act Sections 303(d), 305(b), and 314 Integrated Report.

Great Lakes Restoration

In June 2009 President Obama appointed Cameron Davis, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes, the first-ever Great Lakes “czar.” Mr. Davis coordinated federal programs on the lakes, including efforts to clean up contaminated sediments, reduce existing pollution sources and work to stop the spread of invasive species. The position was part of a $5 billion, 10-year restoration plan Obama released during his 2008 presidential campaign. Davis' official title is "Senior Advisor to the Administrator" Lisa Jackson at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Congress approved legislation in late October 2009 that included $475 million to restore the Great Lakes by combating invasive species, cleaning up highly polluted sites and expanding wetlands. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) includes:

  • $146 million for cleaning up pollution in sediment in feeder rivers and harbors before it flows into the Lakes.
  • $105 million to protect and restore habitat and wildlife.
  • $97 million to stop "nonpoint" pollution, such as farm fertilizer and oil runoff, that closes beaches and leads to fish kills.
  • $65 million to evaluate how the Lakes and wildlife are responding to cleanup efforts.
  • $60 million for combating zebra mussels and other invasive species.


This initiative will use outcome-oriented performance goals and measures to target the most significant problems and track progress in addressing them. EPA and its Federal partners will coordinate State, tribal, local, and industry actions to protect, maintain, and restore the chemical, biological, and physical integrity of the Great Lakes. The Initiative builds upon 5 years of work of the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force (IATF) and stakeholders, guided by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy. The IATF included 11 cabinet and agency organizations, including: EPA, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Departments of State, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Homeland Security, Army, and Health and Human Services.

The IATF developed a Plan for the $475 million budget, including over $250 million in grants and project agreements aimed at achieving the long term goals: safely eating the fish and swimming at our beaches, assuring safe drinking water, and providing a healthy ecosystem for fish and wildlife. A companion Agency Actions document describes proposed accomplishments for each Agency pursuant to the Initiative.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative website provides additional information on the progress of this initiative, including the award of grants for specific projects.

The FY2010-FY2014 Great Lakes Restoration Action Plan was released on February 21, 2010. This Plan provides information about how the GLRI will address specific high profile, basin-wide issues (for example, aquatic invasive species) as well as critical but more localized issues (for example, contaminated sediments). EPA and the IATF used this plan to guide the overall direction and focus of GLRI and laid out the goals, objectives, measures, and actions to help track federal efforts from fiscal year 2010 through 2014. Great Lakes Restoration Action Plan II for FY2015-2019 was released in September 2014 and builds upon the work of the first GLRI Action Plan. More information on the action plan can be found here.

The report State of the Great Lakes 2016 contains discussions on each of the Great Lakes and the current and planned restoration projects.

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition consists of more than 145 environmental, conservation, and outdoor recreation organizations, zoos, aquariums and museums. Their member organizations represent millions of people who share a common goal of restoring and protecting North America’s greatest freshwater resource, the Great Lakes. The coalition reflects a growing public awareness of the urgent need to restore the health of the Great Lakes, which are essential to the economic and cultural identity of our region. The coalition’s mission is to secure a sustainable Great Lakes restoration plan and the funding needed to implement it. The coalition seeks to:

  • stop sewage contamination that closes beaches and harms recreational opportunities;
  • clean up toxic sediments that threaten the health of people and wildlife;
  • prevent polluted runoff from cities and farms that harm water quality;
  • restore and protect high quality wetlands and wildlife habitat that filter pollutants, provide a home for fish and wildlife, and support the region’s outdoor recreation economy;
  • prevent the introduction of invasive species, such as Asian carp, that threaten the economy and quality of life for millions of people.


In March 2017 the Trump administration proposed a 97% cut in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Some progress is being made in restoration of habitat and improvement in water quality. Here are some Michigan success stories.

Cladophora Algae and Harmful Algal Blooms

Excessive growth of the filamentous green alga, Cladophora sp., was one of the most obvious symptoms of eutrophication in the Great Lakes between the 1950s and 1970s. During the latter part of this period, a large amount of research was conducted to determine the causes of excessive Cladophora growth. While various factors, including nitrogen, phosphorus, temperature and irradiance were found to influence Cladophora growth, phosphorus appeared to be the key factor responsible for excessive growth, and phosphorus abatement was seen as the most effective method of solving the problem. This approach appeared to be validated by the decline in the abundance of Cladophora and other algae in the 1980s following the removal of phosphorus from detergents, improved phosphorus removal by sewage treatment plants, and changes in agricultural practices designed to reduce phosphorus runoff from land – actions that resulted from a 1983 amendment to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

In the past five to ten years, excessive Cladophora growth has re-emerged as a management problem in parts of the Great Lakes. This has resulted in public complaint, generally related to the decline in aesthetic conditions near the lakeshore. Other negative impacts include human health hazards (e.g. Cladophora mats may promote the growth or retention of pathogens), the clogging of water intakes (including those of power plants), the loss of recreation opportunities, and declining lakefront property values. In addition to direct impacts on humans, excessive Cladophora growth may have significant impacts on ecosystem functions and properties such as nutrient cycling, energy flow and food web structure. More info.

A June 2006 report Something’s Amuck, Algae Blooms Return to Michigan Shores by the the Michigan Environmental Council has more on this problem and what can be done to solve it.

A presentation by Michael Evanoff of Michigan DNR Bay City State Recreation Area, Muck Management Uncensored examines the history of "muck management" at this location.

An article Green Disposal of a Green Menace was published in the Great Lakes Echo on July 30, 2013. This article discusses options for disposal of Cladophora algae, including composting and possibly using it in the production of biofuels.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Michigan Sea Grant have produced a brochure The Beach Manager's Manual - Harmful Algal Blooms.

The NOAA Center of Excellence for Great Lakes and Human Health (CEGLHH) is hosting a series of Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) Stakeholder Workshops in Great Lakes states. The purpose of these workshops is to bring together public health, water, beach/natural resource managers, and tribes to discuss and assess the HAB issue in the state. For additional information on these Workshops, please see: http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/res/Centers/HumanHealth/

In February 2008, the Alliance for the Great Lakes issued a press release criticizing the state's draft 2008 305(b) report of impaired waters for failing to document a dramatic increase in algae blooms in Saginaw Bay and along Western Lake Erie.

Invasive Species

There are a number of invasive plant and animal species that inhabit the Great Lakes and disrupt the ecological balance of aquatic life. Two such species are the spiny water flea and zebra mussels. More info on invasive species.

Public Education

In November, 2017, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County agreed to continue a 6-year partnership to promote community rain gardens. The program offers assistance with installing rain gardens on private properties, a Master Rain Gardener Certification Program, and credits on utility fees for those that participate. The goal is to increase water quality in the City and County, promote public awareness and involvement, and increase natural space throughout the area. Learn more here.

US EPA has a brochure titled Before You Go to the Beach that discusses beach monitoring, the health effects of swimming in polluted water, and sources of pollution.

A great resource is Between Land and Lake: Michigan’s Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands by Dennis A. Albert.

Michigan Sea Grant's Great Lakes Education Program introduces fourth-grade students to the unique features of the Great Lakes through a combination of classroom learning and hands-on experience. The program is designed to stimulate interest in the Great Lakes and help students understand their role in protecting these vital freshwater resources. The program will bring together research scientists and science teachers for workshops, curriculum development and other projects aimed at improving Great Lakes education.

Here's information on Michigan's Volunteer Inland Lakes Monitoring Program.

In 2007 Michigan State University hosted a Pathogen Workshop Series of lectures "to learn about sources, pathways, and impacts of pathogens in water and to discuss potential solutions." Background technical papers and webcasts of the lectures are available via the MSU Website.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes (formerly Lake Michigan Federation) has a publication A Prescription for Healthy Beaches - Helping You Help Your Beach.

Ottawa County Health Department, working through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, has created materials for an education and outreach campaign to help keep beaches clean and prevent people from getting ill. They have produced rack cards that are being distributed to area students, campgrounds, businesses, and the Michigan Dept of Transportation welcome centers across Michigan. These are also being modified and used to place ads in local tourist magazines, at visitor bureaus, in buses, and made into posters and placed at State and County Parks.

Plastics and other litter, abandoned vessels, and derelict fishing gear have been a long-standing problem for the Great Lakes. In order to begin to address this problem, the Great Lakes community worked together to produce the Great Lakes Land-based Marine Debris Action Plan. The action plan provides scientists, governments, stakeholders, and decision makers a road map for strategic progress to see that the Great Lakes, its coasts, people, and wildlife are free from the impacts of marine debris. It centers around a mission to combat debris through an increased understanding of the problem, preventative actions, reductions in impacts, education and outreach, and collaborative efforts from diverse groups.

An article Surfing and Saving Lake Michigan was written by Ingrid Lindfors, co-founder of the Lake Michigan chapter of Surfrider Foundation.

The International Joint Commission (U.S. and Canada) has a Beaches and Recreational Water Quality Workgroup that has developed a Beaches Fact Sheet and several other documents evaluating sources of recreational water quality contamination and reviewing best management practices.

General Reference Documents and Websites

EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.

NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, has released an interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.




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