Whitmer directs state heads to review, seek solutions for cleaner drinking water

By: - November 4, 2021 4:56 pm

Thousands of lead service lines are set to be replaced in Benton Harbor after tap water tested at elevated lead levels. | Anna Gustafson

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has directed state departments and agencies to jointly “undertake a comprehensive review of the state’s role in our drinking water systems,” her office announced Thursday.

Through the six-part Executive Directive No. 2021-9, Whitmer aims to strengthen Michigan’s drinking water regulations, policies and rules by reviewing its laws, investments, public education, lead abatement, data and planning.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a bill signing in Lansing, Nov. 4, 2021 | Whitmer office photo

The state has in place the toughest lead and copper drinking water rules in the country, as well as the nation’s strictest drinking water regulations for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). However, the pervasive problem of contaminated drinking water is far from over in the Great Lakes State — as can be seen in the community of Benton Harbor, which has dealt with elevated lead levels in water for years and is now receiving assistance from the state.

“The six-part directive will take several steps to tighten regulations, seek to deliver more resources, expand community engagement, and more,” Whitmer said in a statement Thursday. “Our top priority here remains guaranteeing safe drinking water for every Michigander, no matter who they are or where they live. We will not rest until every community has safe drinking water and every parent feels confident to give their kid a glass of water.”

Whitmer’s directive also acknowledges that the current shortfall in water funding disproportionately impacts low-income communities.

The six parts of the directive are as follows:

  • Laws and regulations — Mandate a line-by-line review of existing laws and regulations governing water, which will recommend reforms that could include legislation, amendments to existing rules, new rules and executive reorganization. 
  • Resources — Identify the state and local resources needed to better assist public water suppliers, collect data and enforce water laws.
  • Education and engagement — Analyze education and engagement efforts to ensure every resident living in a community experiencing water quality issues gets the information they need to protect themselves.
  • Lead mitigation — Direct departments to continue finding ways to reduce lead in drinking water, including a proposal for the rapid and safe removal of lead service lines across the state.
  • Data — Examine existing data collection and sharing practices from public water supplies to strengthen the collection/transfer of information and formalize best practices already in place.
  • Planning — Find opportunities for equitable regional planning in the sourcing, treatment and delivery of drinking water, while ensuring resources are being used effectively to deliver safe drinking water.

The Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) both praised Whitmer’s directive as a positive step toward tackling the problem.

“Michigan has an enormous responsibility to steward a fifth of the world’s fresh water, and we have an obligation to ensure that the laws, regulations, data and engagement processes for that are state of the art,” said MEC President and CEO Conan Smith. “Gov. Whitmer’s executive order is a timely first step in a comprehensive process to ensure our drinking water resources are safe and accessible for all of our residents. Stewardship begins at home with our people. Doing it right will establish us as the national and global leader we ought to be.”

Cyndi Roper, NRDC senior policy advocate, said the action “put Michigan back on track to be a national leader for safe drinking water.”

“Instead of communities fending for themselves, the government is rightfully stepping up to make sure every Michigander, wherever they live, is confident in every glass of water. The devil is in the details, and dependent on the will from agencies and equitable funding,” Roper added.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.