Experts say climate change will likely affect many aspects of our drinking water and how we access and treat it in metro Detroit.
Scientists predict more frequent and damaging rain storms, warmer water temperatures and violent weather patterns. All of this matters to our drinking water. More frequent storms mean more polluted runoff dumped into our waterways. That means more pollutants and contaminants enter the waterways that are our drinking water source. And we’re starting to become aware of the dangers of microplastics, fertilizer runoff, and chemicals like PFAS.
Climate change is already altering water systems around the globe. Droughts are occurring in historically drought-resistant areas, including western Michigan. These droughts, experts predict, will lead to a demand for clean Great Lakes water from other parts of the country and the world.
Protecting our source water, planning for future treatment and ensuring equitable distribution of our most precious resource are all critical concerns right now for Detroiters.
Planet Detroit talked to some experts who answered our most pressing questions about the future of climate change and our drinking water to bring you this guide to drinking water and the climate crisis:
Is my drinking water safe?
In short, yes, according to Mary Lynn Semegen, water quality manager for the Great Lakes Water Authority. GLWA is responsible for moving water from its source in Lake Huron and the Detroit River, treating it to meet federal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other quality and safety standards, and then distributing that water to municipal customers. GLWA works with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department and other area utilities to monitor our drinking water 24/7.
However, drinking water expert Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineering LLC, pointed out that Detroit and other municipalities have clear data showing lead in drinking water, albeit in many cases below the state action level. State guidance for testing lead in water may create a false sense of security. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, no amount of lead exposure is safe. Any home with a lead service line or lead plumbing fixtures is vulnerable.
GLWA also works with the EPA to monitor our source water, measuring things like pH, alkalinity, turbidity (the clarity of the water), and to measure nutrients, metals, and other potential pollutants.
“GLWA belongs to the Huron to Erie corridor real-time monitoring network that monitors source water between Lake Huron and Lake Erie,” Semegen told Planet Detroit. “Also, GLWA has two real-time monitoring buoys and equipment on Belle Isle that monitor our source in real-time. That way, GLWA can track changes in water quality and anticipate treatment strategies in advance.”
Some advocates in metro Detroit are seeking more stringent measures for emerging contaminants like PFAS and microplastics.
You can access last year’s Detroit Water and Sewage Water Quality Report and a guide for reading it here. If you live in an area not served by DWSD for drinking water, look for your local annual report, which the State of Michigan requires every water utility to publish annually.
How does climate change impact my drinking water?
Candice Bauer is the manager of the Ground Water and Drinking Water branch of the EPA’s Region 5, which covers all six states touching the Great Lakes.
“Climate change,” she says, “is driving an increase in the average and extreme precipitation across the Midwest. Runoff from this extreme precipitation can carry pollutants to sources of drinking water. And that can put an extra burden on our water treatment systems.”
These heavy storms create more erosion and sedimentation in the water, some of which might come from agricultural runoff containing nitrates. This, in turn, makes it more challenging to treat the water at the source.
“Climate change is also causing an increase in intensity and drought conditions in the region,” Bauer said. “And this, especially for the groundwater and drinking water system, could result in temporary supply shortages and associated water quality impacts from the reduced flows” of that water.
Bauer and the EPA expect increased water temperatures in our surface water systems. This would lead to Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in some areas of the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie. If not treated, HABs can produce cyanotoxins, which cause illness in humans and animals if not treated correctly.
There’s good news for Detroiters in this area, though: GLWA’s Semegen says that “algal blooms prefer warm, stagnant waters, so it’s unlikely that they will have a major impact on flowing waters like the Detroit River.”
What potential pollutants or contaminants in my drinking water should I know about?
The EPA regulates 90 drinking water contaminants, including microbial contaminants, disinfectants and byproducts, inorganic and organic chemicals, and radionuclides.
Here’s a rundown of some of the critical contaminants that can impact our drinking water here in the Great Lakes:
Nitrates enter our drinking water sources primarily through runoff from agricultural land. Nitrates are common in fertilizer and human sewage. As the climate crisis increases the threat of flooding, the nitrates in our source water will likely increase.
Commercial farming is the largest producer of nitrates due to their use of inorganic fertilizers. If you’re fertilizing your lawn or garden, use nitrate-free products. Babies younger than six months could become ill and die without treatment. GLWA's water testing indicated compliance with EPA regulations for nitrate.
Turbidity is a measure of cloudiness in water caused by soil runoff and organic particles. Turbid water is associated with a higher risk of microbial contamination, which may cause gastrointestinal issues. GLWA's water testing indicated compliance with EPA regulations for turbidity.
Chlorine is used in water treatment for disinfection. Excess chlorine can irritate the nose, eyes, and stomach. GLWA's water testing indicated compliance with EPA regulations for chlorine.
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
We’re just beginning to learn the dangers of “forever chemical” PFAS, according to Daniel Brown, a watershed planner with the Huron River Watershed Council. He and other community activists around metro Detroit have been pushing for stricter regulations of PFAS chemicals, a common byproduct of processes like waterproofing and fire retardation.
PFAS are commonly found in industrial plants and places where fire suppression is common, like military bases, but storms can wash them into our streams, rivers and lakes.
The health effects of exposure to high levels of PFAS are still under study. Scientists believe they may interfere with human hormones and increase cancer risk.
“These chemicals don't break down over the timescale of human lifetimes,” says Brown. “In many ways, the presence of PFAS is a lot like the challenges that we're facing from climate change, where it's this massive global problem, it builds up over time, and the only solution is not to use the thing that's causing the problem in the first place.
The EPA does not currently regulate PFAS. However, it issued health advisories on four PFAS chemicals in June 2022 and has convened an EPA Council on PFAS to coordinate the next steps.
The state of Michigan adopted drinking water standards for seven PFAS compounds under its authority under the Clean Water Act in August of 2020. As of March 2022, Michigan was one of only 12 states to have adopted drinking water standards for PFAS. GLWA has tested its water for PFAS since 2009.
The best way to tackle PFAS in your drinking water, experts say, is to prevent them from entering your source water in the first place. Groups like the Huron River Watershed Council, We the People of Detroit, and many others advocate for legislative restrictions on PFAS use. Join a group and raise your voice.
Microplastics come from clothing, cosmetics, tires, and nearly everything manufactured in the early 21st century. One study found that 83% of drinking water samples from across major metropolitan areas around the world contained microplastics. A single fleece jacket can shed up to 250,000 microfibers during a single wash, which inevitably lands in our waterways. In 2015, the U.S. passed the Microbead-free Waterways Act, which banned microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. A 2020 research review found that the health implications of microplastics are not yet well understood. Some scientists theorize that microplastics may transport toxic chemicals into the body and cause allergic reactions.
What can you do about microplastics in drinking water? “Pick your own trash,” says the Sierra Club’s Leaphart. "We live in watersheds. So everything we do on the land impacts the water quality, that is, our source water, the water we drink. The cleaner that water, the better the water we're drinking.”
Because microplastics are an emerging concern, few guidelines exist. However, groups are working on the problem, including the EPA, GLWA and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department. So far, only California has taken action to require testing for microplastics in drinking water.
After the crises of lead in drinking water in Flint, Benton Harbor, and other cities, many Detroiters worry that they’ll be the next ones to find out their drinking water is contaminated with the heavy metal, which causes severe health problems in infants and children and affects people of all ages.
Lead in drinking water comes not from the source water — in Detroit’s case, the waters of Lake Huron and the Detroit River — but from antiquated service lines and pipes. Before we knew better, many of the pipes that connected the city’s drinking water lines to individual homes were made of lead.
Although climate change might not directly impact lead levels in service lines, experts expect that strained infrastructure will be a typical result of the other changes brought on by the climate crisis. Strained infrastructure could lead to fewer resources for replacing lead service lines.
GLWA's 2021 Detroit Water Quality Report for Detroit did not find lead levels above the state action level for lead remediation in a sampling of homes tested. However, Detroit has an estimated 77,197 lead service lines and another 28,922 lines made of "unknown material." And, as Planet Detroit has reported, the state's requirements for drinking water sampling may create a false sense of security.
If the pipes in your home are from before 1945, or you suspect they might be, you can contact the Detroit Water and Sewage Department directly to request a lead test kit for your home. DWSD is undertaking an initiative to replace lead service lines across the city. Check to see if you have lead service lines and request to add your home to the list here.
What policies do advocacy groups want to see implemented at the state and local levels to address drinking water-related climate change issues?
For Dan Brown of the Huron River Watershed Council and many others, it begins with protecting the resources we have. “We want to protect land that has a function of filtering water and making water naturally clean,” he says. “That basically means protecting source water in wetlands and headwaters areas” and other water sources throughout the Great Lakes watershed. “It boils down to protecting natural undisturbed forests and wetlands to protect clean water,” he says, citing a United Nations call to action that calls wetlands the “unsung heroes” of the climate crisis.
Emily Kurtil is an architecture professor and a member of the community research collective for We the People of Detroit, a community grassroots organization dedicated to equity in water access and affordability in Detroit. She wants to see real investment in Detroit’s aging infrastructure, especially its stormwater infrastructure, as climate change increases pressures on the aging systems of water treatment and distribution.
“We're overextended in Detroit in many ways in our water infrastructure,” she said, noting that Detroit residents bear the burden of providing clean water to the entire metro region. She and other equity activists work with private citizens to offer aid on water bill payments, fund equity and drinking water access studies, and create toolkits to understand Detroiters' potential problems.
Planet Detroit has reported that Detroiters are charged more than their suburban neighbors for sewer service because they bear the costs of operating a legacy system with combined sewers.
“Stormwater management,” Kutil said, “is the thing that's driving unaffordable water bills in the city. That is something that is likely going to get worse with climate change.”
How can I take action to address drinking water-related climate change issues?
You can do many things to get involved in local water advocacy. Here are just a few:
- Be informed. Monica Lewis-Patrick, the founder of We the People of Detroit, calls on residents to “deputize yourself” to learn more, stay aware, and seek reputable sources.
- Disconnect your downspout. This also helps keep rainfall from overwhelming the sewage system. It’s required by law for Michigan residents, but Detroit residents can get a 25% credit on their water and sewage bill for doing so, which makes this a case of saving the planet and some money.
- Plant a rain garden. Rain gardens control stormwater runoff and keep heavy rain from overwhelming our stormwater overflow system. This keeps sewage pipes from leaking into our source water.
Drive less, walk more. Drinking water is affected by all sorts of contaminants and pollutants, including microplastics from tires. Car tires shed almost an ounce of microplastics every three-quarters of a mile.
What groups and resources are available to help me deal with drinking water-related climate change issues that affect me?
Here's a partial list of groups and organizations working on drinking water issues in the region:
This Planet Detroit Climate Guide is supported by the Americana Foundation and the GM Foundation