One photo showcases the legacy left by our parents, a generation that insisted on legislation that protected our water and air, endangered species, and held those who polluted with hazardous waste financially responsible for the cleanup.
The other tells the story of the legacy we are leaving our children if we fail to curb climate change and to enforce environmental legislation designed to protect our properties, our health and our dreams.
Both photos tell the story of a small cottage on Sanford Lake that has been in my husband’s family for over sixty years. It is where Rubin learned to sail, waterski, fish, love boats, and hate mosquitoes.
On May 19th, the Edenville dam collapsed after days of unprecedented rainfall. The dam, one of four privately owned by Boyce Hydro Power along the Tittabawassee River in mid-Michigan, failed federal inspection in 2018. When it broke and the contents of Wixom Lake poured into Sanford Lake, it took only two days before the pressure of the additional water overwhelmed the Sanford dam, sending another wall of water down the Tittabawassee River and into the city of Midland. The result was the equivalent of a 500-year flood.
The damage caused by one record-setting rainfall and two privately-owned dams whose owner, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, was chronically non-compliant with regulator requests to upgrade the dams, is mind-boggling. Roughly 1,000 property owners on Wixom Lake and another 1,600 on Sanford Lake watched property values plummet as the lakes disappeared over the dams, leaving debris and destruction in their wake. Throughout the Midland area, over 10,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes. While the financial cost of the flooding is unknown, the aerial photographs tell a horrifying story.
Even before the civil lawsuits began accumulating in the courts, Michigan’s governor called for an investigation. And while accountability is essential, I believe there are additional concerns.
Michigan has 2,523 dams, 1,153 regulated by federal or state agencies. Over half the regulated dams are privately owned. Should infrastructure that affects so many people be owned privately? Regardless of ownership, what should happen when a dam is not maintained, particularly with the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events caused by climate change?
The Tittabawassee River flows past a Dow Chemical plant and eventually meets the Saginaw River, continuing into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. Throughout the 20th century, the plant contaminated the river, air and riverbanks with a compound called dioxin. Considered a hazardous waste, dioxins can cause cancer and damage immune and reproductive systems. Under the Superfund legislation passed in 1980, Dow is responsible for cleaning up the site. As the cleanup plans were not agreed on until 2007, implementation delayed until 2012, cleanup efforts are still underway. Scientists and environmental groups are concerned the flooding could sweep the dioxins back into the floodplain and farther downstream.
In October 2019, the Government Accountability Office said the EPA should take steps to protect the 1,871 Superfund sites from the effects of climate change, including flooding from heavy rains. What is the status of those recommendations? When will they be implemented in the 89 Superfund sites in Michigan? If the EPA is not addressing this issue, what is the state doing? And what can be done to expedite these Superfund cleanups?
It was reported that flood waters were commingling with Dow-Corning’s on-site containment ponds, potentially unleashing a 26-page list of chemicals and contaminants like solvents, tars, lead and other heavy metals. And while it is too soon to tell if the spread of dioxins and these other pollutants will be another cost of the flood, homeowners have been encouraged to have private wells inspected. At a minimum, there is risk of E. coli and other pathogens contaminating the groundwater.
How many before and after photos will it take for us to make climate change a priority? To insist existing legislation be enforced?
Our legacy hinges on how we cast our ballots in November.
to Lori, Rubin's sister, who provided the photos and personalized this seemingly preventable tragedy. Fortunately, no human lives were lost. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the fish, wildlife and vegetation.
I want to write a poem
about the fox or the robin
the turkeys or the moon
or even the radiant colors
of last evening’s sunset
but all I can think about
are those empty store shelves
knowing at some point
I will get down to that last roll
in my boxes
a Sears catalog.
I want to write a poem about the pearly white pants of the Dutchman, flashing spring’s arrival across the crinkly-brown of winter, but last month . . .
It was reported there were 62% more facilities in the Great Lakes region in “significant noncompliance” with the Clean Water Act in fiscal 2019 when compared to the average number of facilities for years 2012-2017. In a report issued by the Environmental Law and Policy Center of Chicago, enforcement budgets for the Environmental Protection Agency are shrinking, staff levels are declining. and the drops in enforcement correspond with a rise in noncompliance by industrial polluters.
I want to write a poem about the serenading robin, perched on a branch dotted with the softness of early spring, but last week . . .
I learned in addition to fulfilling his campaign promise to scale back environmental regulations to make life easier for businesses and industry, President Trump instructed the EPA to forgo fines or other civil penalties for companies that fail to monitor, report or meet requirements for releasing hazardous pollutants during the coronavirus pandemic.
What good is legislation designed to protect us if it is not enforced?
I want to write about watching the red-tailed hawks “doing it” (no kidding!) on the branch outside our sunroom window, but last week . . .
I read that because of the climate-driven increases in precipitation that are overloading antiquated sewage systems and increasing nutrient runoff that fuels algal growth, “Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil” warnings will become more frequent across the Great Lakes region. (Boiling water does not treat algal contamination.)
I want to write a poem about the sandy beach I used to walk for miles before these same frequent and intense storms ravaged the shoreline and miles of protective rock embankments designed to protect homes became like walls. I want to pretend I didn’t read last week that this “hard shore armoring” actually destroys the natural beach over the long term, driving offshore the very sand needed to replenish the coastline.
I want to write a poem about the fumbling descent of the turkeys from the branches of the hemlocks, the red fox pouncing on an inattentive mouse, the silent ascent of the full moon over the valley.
Above all, I want to find words that will contribute to much-needed dialogue about how we balance our needs with that of the earth’s.
What do you want?
The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France is closed during this pandemic. Considered a sacred site by the Catholic Church, it is the place where Mary, the Mother of God, is said to have appeared repeatedly to 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Beside the grotto in which the apparitions occurred, is a spring said to have the ability to heal.
When, in recent memory, have we needed healing more than now?
The pilgrimage site may be closed, but through the voice of Sr. Diane Zerfas of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, we can experience the healing power of water from the springs of Lourdes to the seemingly infinite waters of Lake Michigan.
At the core of that power is prayer.
During this public health crisis when most of us are washing our hands longer and more frequently in water, why not use that time to pray? With so many voices raised in prayer so frequently throughout the day, perhaps we might emerge from this pandemic stronger, more willing to work together to care for each other and for our planet. Perhaps, through our prayers, God will work miracles.
hospital, rehab, or nursing home bed. In our absence, we will depend on physicians, nurses, and aides to provide bedside emotional support as well as physical care; especially the aides—the caregivers who bathe, dress, change, and respond to the call buttons of the sick, the elderly, the dying.
Irene passed early Easter morning. And while prayers flow easily from my heart these days, at the top of the list is a prayer for those who made it possible for Irene to know she was not alone.
“The water of Mother Earth, she carries life to us, and as women we carry life through our bodies,” wrote Josephine Mandamin in a journal she began on a rainy, cold day in April 2003. “We as women are life-givers, protectors of the water . . .”
That day marked the beginning of a 15,500-mile walk alongside all five Great Lakes. Led by Josephine Mandamin (1942-2019), a grandmother in her sixties and a member of the Anishinabek Nation, the walk began with a handful of women at her side. By the time she finished the walks five years later, thousands of women and men had accompanied her for some portion of the journey.
Her goal was to raise awareness that the health of our water, a sacred gift, was at risk.
Traditionally responsible for the health of children, families and communities, women have been carrying water and caring for water since the beginning of time.
It was Marjory Stoneman Douglas (1890-1998) who changed the perception of the Everglades from a worthless swamp to an essential ecosystem worth protecting. Rachel Carson (1907-1964) brought attention to the use of synthetic pesticides and is credited for launching the environmental movement with her book, Silent Spring. Erin Brockovich unearthed Pacific Gas and Electric’s contamination of groundwater that was affecting the health of Hinckley, CA. Her research was instrumental in a $333 million settlement in 1996 that held the company financially accountable. Forty years ago, in Love Canal, NY, it was Louis Gibbs who transformed herself “from homemaker to hellraiser” to convince then-President Jimmy Carter to remove over 800 families from a neighborhood developed on a toxic dump site. And in 2014, it was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a woman pediatrician, professor and public health advocate, who exposed the high levels of lead in Flint’s water.
This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Despite the all-consuming coronavirus plaguing the planet, and perhaps because of the importance of water in combatting its deadly spread, I am officially launching the Listening to the Voices of Water YouTube Channel. Through the voices of women across religions and spiritual beliefs, across all walks of life and age groups, you will hear about the value of water from a spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental perspective.
Water, the essence of life, touches all.
In this 1 ½ minute trailer, I introduce you to some of the women who have inspired and informed me, and, hopefully, will you, too. Together we can engage in caring for this sacred gift of God. Despite the unruly tear you might notice trickling down my cheek, it is a video of hope as well as a call to action.
Why the above photograph of the Pink Everlasting? Visit a Skosh of Poetry.
I worried, as I am prone to do, about the thousands of families in Detroit without even a dribble flowing from faucets, their water shut off because of unpaid bills.
How do they wash their hands for twenty seconds when they enter their homes? How do they drink plenty of water at the first hint of COVID-19 symptoms? How do they stay healthy?
Still reeling from the decline in manufacturing and the resulting mass exodus of people, Detroit has fewer residents to pick up the tab for oversized and aging water infrastructure. Under pressure to meet EPA water quality requirements and with federal funding for water and sewer systems declining, the investment burden has fallen on the shoulders of local taxpayers. With roughly 35% of Detroit residents living below the poverty level, and bankruptcy driving a 2014 decision to use water shutoffs as an incentive for bill payment, at least 100,000 households have experienced a water shutoff over the last seven years.
Data suggests the problem was not willingness to pay, but ability to pay.
On March 7th, before the first case of coronavirus was reported in Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Dugan, and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown initiated a Coronavirus Water Restart Plan. For $25/month for the duration of the crisis, 2,640 Detroit households will be allowed to reconnect to city water. Thankfully, the state of Michigan is picking up the reconnecting costs. But while the monthly fee is more affordable, ultimately, the families will be charged for water used during this crisis, as well as those unpaid bills from the past.
If they were without sufficient funds before the looming recession, where will they find money after? Particularly if the rates remain the same?
In the documentary, Flint: The Poisoning of an American City, ground water expert Dr. Will Sarni says we need to think about water at a national level. “We have 19th century water policy, 20th century infrastructure, and 21st century challenges with respect to our water.”
We are seeing the result as COVID-19 sweeps across our country. A 2017 Michigan State University study estimates that if water costs continue to increase the same rate for the next five years, a third of US households may be unable to afford water. Meanwhile, ninety cities and states have suspended water shutoffs during the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, only twenty percent have agreed to reconnect those households to public water. According to a report in The Guardian, the rest have only committed to halting new shutoffs.
It makes me appreciate the leadership demonstrated by Michigan’s governor.
Water is a matter of life and health. Ask the families of the 1,035 people in Michigan who have contracted COVID-19 in the last twelve days. Weep with the families of the nine who have died. And pray for those in this country who still do not have access to water. Their health affects us all.
Food and Water Watch. “America’s Secret Water Crisis: National Shutoff Survey Reveals Water Affordability Emergency Affecting Millions.” October 2018
Anna Recchie, Joseph Recchie, John Powell, Lauren Lyons, Ponsella Hardaway, Wendy Ake. Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley, MOSES, and Praxia Partners.
“Water Equity and Security in Detroit’s Water and Sewer District.” January 2019
City of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. “Program Update: Coronavirus Water Restart Plan.” March 20, 2020.
Flint: The Poisoning of an American City. Available on Amazon Prime.
Nina Lakhani. “90 US cities and states suspend water shutoffs to tackle coronavirus.” The Guardian. 3/16/20
Daily Coronavirus Updates in Michigan
When we were young, my mother threated to wash our mouths out with soap if we said anything disrespectful or harmful to another person. Of her six children, I am the one who tasted the bar of soap, a memory that still causes my mouth to recoil some six decades later.
The punishment taught me at a very young age that words matter.
At a time when we are divided as a country, what we say and how we say it will shape the dialogue needed to solve matters of grave importance—like COVID-19 and climate change. In an interview with Lana Pollack, former President of the Michigan Environmental Council, state senator for Michigan, U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission, and wife, mother, and grandmother, she shares concerns about four words commonly used by us all. And often misused.
Where is that bar of soap? Needed now more than ever. On multiple levels.
How many times have I struggled to find self, particularly during times of transition? Gone to Lake Michigan to gain clarity? How many times have I made mistakes on that journey? Fallen? Gotten back up with the help of others?
It is why The Lake Michigan Mermaid: A Tale in Poems is prominently placed on my sacred book shelf. In many ways, the young girl’s story mirrors my own. Interviewing poets Linda Nemec Foster, Anne-Marie Oomen, and illustrator Meridith Ridl, creators of this Michigan Notable Book Award winner, was inspiring. And fun! They made me laugh as they described the challenges of braiding their three voices as well as that of the publisher.
It was a reminder. Harmony provides the richness and color needed to create a masterpiece. Needed to create community.
When you listen to the poets read “Contrapuntal: Two Voices of the Lake,” listen carefully. Contrapuntal is a musical term that means two or more melodic lines. When the voices of the mermaid and the young girl are intertwined, I believe one can hear the voice of the lake.
It is a voice that needs to be heard from the shores of Lake Michigan to the hills of Pennsylvania. And beyond.
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