On summer mornings with coffee in hand I walk down to the beach and gaze out over that the vast expanse of water between Port Austin and Tawas. It’s thought of as an idyllic ecosystem full of tasty Perch and Walleye. It’s playground for swimming, sailing and boating. The sugar sand beaches are where many baby’s experience their first Great Lakes dunking and children play and make sand castles at the water’s edge.
However, back in the era of Big Hair, Members Only jackets and Yuppies, the EPA and the State of Michigan designated the entire region as a potential environmental disaster. The deterioration and pollution was so bad that the label of “Area of Concern” was slapped on the Saginaw Bay in 1987 and has not been lifted for 30 years.
While researching another topic, I stumbled on to the DEQs website outlining the problems identified with the Saginaw River and Bay. There are twelve extremely significant Beneficial Use Impairments (BUIs) identified. To achieve de-listing as an Area of Concern, each of the BUIs must be identified as solved. In the past 30 years, only three BUIs have been remedied. I had no clue that this serious set of conditions existed. I don’t recall it ever being publicized.
Three Long Decades of Little Progress
The Saginaw River/Bay Area Of Concern was listed due to contaminated sediments, fish consumption advisories, high bacteria, nutrient enrichment (e.g., phosphorus), sedimentation, degraded fisheries, and loss of significant recreational values. Part of the region near the Tittabawassee River was listed as a Superfund site and flows right into the Bay and out to Lake Huron. This listing was in 1988 when the entire Great Lakes watershed was experiencing the same high water levels as we are now in 2017.
Here are the problems identified in the 1980’s, all but 3 continue today.
Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption – Dioxin contamination from Tittabawassee River sediments are a current and active source of dioxin contamination to the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay.
Tainting of fish and wildlife flavor – Chemical odors and tastes associated with fish caught in the Tittabawassee River and the Saginaw River/Bay AOC were frequently reported from the 1940s through the 1970s. This issue has been deem solved in 2008.
Bird or animal deformities or reproductive problems – Terns, herons, and eagles that were injured due to contaminants and linked to death (Caspian terns), malfunctions in reproduction (Caspian terns, common terns, bald eagles), and physical deformations (black-crowned night herons, Caspian terns, common terns)
Degradation of benthos – Degradation of the benthos of Saginaw Bay as an impaired use because the benthic community structure in the bay is significantly degraded from that which occurs in unpolluted sites elsewhere in the Great Lakes. Specifically, the mayfly, once abundant in Saginaw Bay and an important component of the fish forage base, is currently only rarely found in the bay. Researchers believe that high oxygen demand created by increased decomposition of organic debris in the sediments has decreased dissolved oxygen levels below that needed to support mayflies and other pollution in-tolerant species
Restrictions on dredging activities – Historically, sediments dredged from parts of the navigation channel in the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay require confined disposal because of elevated levels of pollutants, including PCBs, several metals (e.g., mercury), nutrients, and oil and grease.
Eutrophication (aka High Fertilizer and Poop Levels) or undesirable algae – Nuisance organic “muck” debris, composed mainly of Cladophora (a benthic algae), continues to wash ashore along Saginaw Bay (Saginaw Bay Science Committee Pathogen Work Group, 2007). These conditions are thought to be caused, in part, by the cultural eutrophication of Saginaw Bay. In 2012 Thumbwind posted an article that testing of this “muck” showed it contained bovine and human fecal material. “Poop”! We were swimming with poop.
Restrictions on drinking water consumption or taste and odor problems – The drinking water use impairment was originally identified primarily due to significant taste and odor problems during the 1970s that were linked to excessive blue-green algal (i.e., cyanobacteria) blooms, which had caused some of the drinking water intakes in the bay to exceed federal threshold odor standards. Deemed solved in 2008.
Beach closings – Public advisories are periodically issued following storm events by local health departments warning against body contact with the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay because of elevated levels of pathogens (E. coli) resulting from combined sewer overflows. Just about every beach in the Upper Thumb has been closed at one time or another due to high E. coli levels.
Degradation of aesthetics – Like the Eutrophication (aka High Fertilizer and Poop Levels) or Undesirable Algae use impairment, increased biological productivity in Saginaw Bay resulted in an increase in the organic debris or “muck” washing up on the shoreline of Saginaw Bay. The debris consists of decomposing algae, aquatic plants, and small invertebrate animals. The smell and unsightliness of this beach debris prompted citizen complaints and concern about pollution entering the bay. Because of these complaints, aesthetics was listed as a use impairment for Saginaw Bay
Degradation of phyto- or zooplankton populations – The lack of zooplankton grazing in Saginaw Bay was believed to be due, in part, to a greater abundance of large, unpalatable filamentous blue-green and green algae in Saginaw Bay. Believed to be caused by the cultural eutrophication of Saginaw Bay, which was brought about by excessive nutrient loading. Phosphorus appeared to be the key factor responsible for excessive growth.
Degradation of fish and wildlife populations & 12. Loss of fish and wildlife habitat – Habitat degradation includes the loss of coastal marsh areas, the sedimentation of fish spawning reefs in Saginaw Bay, and numerous impacts from exotic species (e.g. goby, ruffe, and zebra mussels). This habitat loss and degradation has impaired the reproductive success and growth of numerous aquatic and wildlife species. Deemed solved in 2014
We have reached out to the Michigan DEQ with the hopes of getting an update on the progress of Saginaw River/Bay’s AOC. If there is a response, we will update.
Featured Photo provided by Saginaw Future via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Map provided by EPA. All other photos (c) ThumbWind
This post was originally published in 2012. It’s one of the most viewed and searched for on ThumbWind until our Michigan Wind Farm Map was issued. With the recent budget cuts announced for the EPA by the current administration it’s feared that the Great Lakes and Saginaw Bay will once again experience muck and fecal encrusted beaches.
The once pristine waters of Michigan’s Saginaw Bay now look like Lake Erie in the 1960’s. This observation was made by oceanographers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, after reviewing images made by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua satellite on October 9, 2011.
Researchers were comparing algae blooms in Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay. “This is considered the worst bloom in decades,” says Richard Stumpf of NOAA. The green in Saginaw Bay is probably an algal bloom as well.” According to NASA, over the past decade Microcystis, a type of blue-green algae known to produce the toxin microcystin, has returned to the Great Lakes. No single cause has been pinpointed, but runoff from cities, fertilizers, septic tank overflow, zebra mussels, and livestock near water supplies are likely culprits.
Saginaw River a Significant Source
Despite $45 million in improvements, Bay City and Saginaw wastewater treatment overflow millions of gallons with partially treated waste water into Saginaw River which flows into the Bay. Laura Ogar, the Bay County Director of Environmental Affairs and Community Development notes that reports are made averaging six overflows a year. Published reports estimated that 90 million gallons of overflow occurred in 2011. Bacteria still present in the water without full treatment.
In April 2014 the City of Flint Michigan switched from water from Lake Huron provided by the city of Detroit to utilizing water taken from the Flint River. This was a cost saving move under the leadership of a succession of Flint emergency managers appointed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder. As a result of the corrosive nature of the Flint River water and mismanagement by all of the appointed emergency managers, the Flint city government and by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality an unknown number of children in Flint, Michigan (estimates are in the 1000’s), were exposed to dangerous amounts of lead in their drinking water over the past 18 months. Recently health officials are investigating if 87 cased of Legionnaires disease is linked to the water crisis. 10 people have died since 2014.
Currently there is no long range plan to correct this problem. The American Red Cross has been coordinating 1000’s of volunteers who have been distributing bottled water door to door. Filters and test kits are also being distributed. Filters can treat up to 100 gallons of contaminated water.
Exposure to lead can have a wide range of effects on a child’s development and behavior. Even when exposed to small amounts of lead levels, children may appear inattentive, hyperactive and irritable. Children with greater lead levels may also have problems with learning and reading, delayed growth and hearing loss. At high levels, lead can cause permanent brain damage and even death.
Population of Flint Michigan (est): 100,000
Children under 5 years of age (est.): 7,000
Flint Michigan Water Crisis Timeline
Governor Snyder appoints Michael Brown as emergency manager of Flint. Brown is the first of the line of four emergency managers.
Governor Snyder appoints Ed Kurtz emergency manager after Michael Brown steps down.
Michigan Treasury and Flint city officials review alternatives to using Detroit City Water. Treasury reviews two options; staying with the Detroit water system and using the Karegnondi Water Authority, (KWA), a new pipeline to Lake Huron water under development.
Flint City Council votes to join the Karegnondi Water Authority, which is under development. However under emergency manager status the vote is non-binding and the council holds no authority.
Ed Kurtz, Flint emergency manager, fails to negotiate and sign extension contract with Detroit water department citing unreliable rates. Detroit notifies city that it will end its contract with Flint in one year.
Emergency manager Ed Kurtz hires Lockwood, Andrews & Newman for a plan to switch to Flint river water.
Karegnondi Water Authority breaks ground for water pipeline from Lake Huron
Emergency manager Ed Kurtz resigns
Michael Brown returns to Flint to take back the role of emergency manager.
Michael Brown resigns the post of Flint’s emergency manager citing family reasons.
The forth appointed emergency manger, Darnell Earley steps in for outgoing Michael Brown.
Emergency manager Darnell Earley refuses offer by Detroit Water Department to continue to purchase water. Notes that use of Flint River water will be temporary until KWA pipeline is completed.
After receiving approval from State of Michigan regulators, City and State officials switched Flint’s water source from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River, immediately prompting citizen complaints about tap water quality.
An internal report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services warned that lead poisoning rates “were higher than usual for children under age 16 living in the City of Flint during the months of July, August and September, 2014.”
General Motors announces it will cease using Flint water due to corrosion problems in machines due to high chlorine levels.
Flint is found to be in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act due to high levels of trihalomethanes (TTHM). This is due to Flints efforts to rid the system of E, coli contamination.
Flint mayor Dayne Walling announces that the Flint water is safe to drink.
University of Michigan’s Flint campus finds high lead levels on campus. It shuts down some drinking fountains as a result. This is considered a first report of a lead problem in Flint’s water.
Emergency manager Darnell Earley said Flint will not return to Detroit water citing $12m cost.
Darnell Earley resigns as emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose steps in.
Flint residents see lead level in home drinking water at 104 parts per billion. Far exceeding EPA’s limit of 15 parts per billion.
EPA begins inquiries about treatment for corrosion. Michigan’s DEQ reports that a corrosion plan is in effect. This is found to be false later in the year.
A Flint child is found to have confirmed lead poisoning. The source of the lead is the Flint water system. Officials shut off water to the home and connect to a neighbor’s house with a garden hose.
In a leaked memo, the EPA expresses alarm over lack of corrosion control and high lead levels seen in resident water. Admits that they have no idea of the extent of the problem.
Through a public records request, Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech, uncovered a July 2015 memo warning of elevated lead levels in Flint kids’ blood.
MDEQ’s Brad Wurfel publicly begin stating that a study had been done on lead levels, and using those results for public relations purposes as early as September 6th, 2015. Ironically, it was used to discredit high lead in water data collected by Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech University researchers test homes across Flint. One sample shows lead contamination at 13,200 per billion. 5,000 parts per billion is considered hazardous waste.
Flint pediatrician finds lead levels in children have doubled since the switch to Flint River water. Estimates are 4% of children have elevated blood-lead levels.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant reported that water at Eisenhower and Freeman elementary schools, along with Brownell/Holmes STEM academies tested above 15 parts per billion for lead — the safety standard set by the federal government. One of the schools tested at more than six times the federal limit.
Genesee County declares public health emergency. Plans to distribute 1000’s of water filters.
Michigan Governor Snyder states that Flint will return to Detroit City Water. Mott Foundation pledges $10m for the $12m conversion effort since the State of Michigan has no emergency funds.
On Oct. 16, water started flowing again from Detroit to Flint.
Challenger Karen Weaver has defeated incumbent Dayne Walling to become the first woman elected as mayor of Flint. Walling had been elected mayor twice previously — to a partial term in 2009 and a full four-year term in 2011.
Howard Croft, the department head responsible for oversight of Flint water operations, resigns his position November 16.
In her first month in office Flint’s mayor, Karen Weaver declares a State of Man-Made Emergency due to problems with the city’s water system caused by using water from the Flint River, saying the city needs more federal help.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow launched a series of reports on the Flint Water Crisis bringing national attention to the crisis in Michigan and the failure of emergency managers in Michigan.
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant resigns.
Michigan’s governor Snyder directs the Michigan State Police to distribute donated water and water filters to the community.
Snyder calls up the Michigan National Guard to assist in water distribution.
Health officials investigate Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks in and around Flint to determine if it was caused by the ongoing water-contamination crisis.
Residents file a class-action lawsuit alleging the water was corroding city pipes and leaching lead because the state wasn’t treating it with an anti-corrosive agent, a violation of federal law.
Governor Snyder asks the Obama administration to declare a major disaster in Genesee County and expedite federal aid to citizens affected by the polluted water supply.
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, wants leaders of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to hold a hearing on lead contamination in the water in Flint, saying it’s Congress’ responsibility to address “a man-made disaster created by the poor policy decisions of elected and career government officials.
President Obama declares that an emergency exists in the State of Michigan and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts due to the emergency conditions in the area affected by contaminated water.
Governor Snyder reviews the Flint Water Crisis in his State of the State address. Announces $28m in state funding and announces that all email communication on the Flint crisis will be made public.
President Obama remarks at the United Auto Worker’s General Motors training center in Detroit. “And I know that if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself that my kids’ health could be at risk.That’s why over the weekend, I declared a federal emergency in Flint.”
Water testing coordinated by the EPA shows samples exceeding 150 part per billion. At this level filters may be ineffective for removal of lead from drinking water.
Congressional oversight hearings begin on the Flint Water Crisis. U.S. Marshals asked to “hunt … down” former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley to force him to testify in hearings.
Michigan Congresswoman Candice Miller introduces $1 Billion emergency aid bill to replace Flint’s water system.
Credits for the information provided by Michigan Public Radio, Mlive.com, US Census, US Centers for Disease Control, MSNBC, ABC News and various news and information services.