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Great Lakes Article:

People favor protecting water with Proposal 2

Officials estimate 54 billion gallons of sewage flowed into Michigan waters two years ago
Lori Hall Steele
Traverse City Record-Eagle

   TRAVERSE CITY -On this October afternoon, West Grand Traverse Bay is mirroring soft, low autumn clouds, rippling slightly as seagulls fly back and forth. There’s no reminder here of beach closings, no visible memory of E. coli testing.

   But up and down the beach, people vividly recall recent raw sewage overflows into Great Lakes waters, and that’s why, they say, they are nearly unanimously in favor of Proposal 2, a ballot question that aims to curtail such contamination. Voters will be asked Nov. 5 to authorize $1 billion in state bonds for sewer and water system maintenance and construction, an effort to reduce sewer overflows, beach closings and water pollution.

   “It’s something Traverse City needs,” said Susan Boyd, 47, of Traverse City. “We’ve grown to such an extent. If you go down Eighth Street, you can see that the system is overextended. Just look at the smell.”

   Boyd is fiddling with a camera on the sands of West End Beach, as the city’s power plant hums in the background. She’s taking photos of paramedic Bob Meyer for a calendar that will raise funds for the Sierra Club. Like other voters who are working, playing or just enjoying the city’s waterfront during lunch hour, Boyd plans to vote for Proposal 2.

   “This area is known for water sports and recreation — that’s what brings people to Traverse City,” the 38-year-old Traverse City man said. “If we have a heavy rain and raw sewage dumps into the bay, it takes away from everything that attracts people to Traverse City. You don’t want people’s kids getting sick from something like a rainstorm.”

   Traverse City beaches have been closed four times in four years following storm-induced sewage overflows. State officials estimate that 54 billion gallons of improperly treated sewage flowed into Michigan waters two years ago, causing beach closings statewide because bacterial counts were too high to safely allow swimming.

   Backers of the state’s sewer-bond issue argue that water pollution caused by aging, deteriorating or insufficient sewage systems, like Traverse City’s, is one of the worst environmental problems facing Michigan.

   “Is it? I really don’t know, but I plan to find out,” asked Susan Carlyon, a 53-year-old financial adviser whose office overlooks West Grand Traverse Bay. She planned to do some research on the issue before the election.

   “People need good information to make good decisions,” she said.

   Nearby, driver Robert Smith was delivering office supplies to a waterfront office. The 26-year-old Gaylord man said he hasn’t paid attention yet to the issue.

   “I’m all for clean water, though,” he said.

   Who isn’t? So far, there’s little or no opposition to Proposal 2. If approved, the ballot initiative would add about $180 million a year for 10 years to the state’s revolving fund that finances loans to local sewer systems. Now, about $200 million goes into the fund.

   Michigan voters have a long history of supporting such clean-environment proposals. And Rocquel Morrison understands why.

   “I have friends that ask, ‘Why do you live in Michigan?’ I say if you’re already in Utopia, why move?” said Morrison, who was walking her white toy poodle, Baton Bebe, through the Open Space, as nearby bulldozers moved earth for a new marina project.

   At the same time, she said, something needs to be done about sewage overflows to keep area waters Utopian.

   “Sewage is dumping into the bay,” said Morrison, a fiftysomething interior designer. “We have a home right on the bay, and I think I swam in contaminated water before I knew about it. This (bond proposal) is something we really need to do.”

   Near the bay, Tom Baker was fishing for trout along the Boardman River with his dog, Bud, a pit bull and German shepherd mix. Ducks quacked and paddled, fat salmon swam visibly underwater, and black willows lined the shore. The water here, Baker said, is still pretty darned pristine.

   “But it’s going downhill,” he said. “And this sewer thing, it’s just another example of too many people in too small an area. Older buildings are dumping roof water into the system too, so they need to make sure every building is up to code.”

   City officials recently tested downtown buildings and discovered that more than 24 drains feed into the city’s sewage, rather than the stormwater, system. During heavy rains, those drains fed an estimated 360,000 gallons of relatively clean water into the sewage system. The influx of water forces manhole covers to pop and raw sewage to overflow, draining into Boardman Lake and then West Grand Traverse Bay.

   Crossing the bridge over the Boardman, Tom Schoemp headed toward Clinch Park Beach for a smoke after work as a general laborer. The 52-year-old Traverse City man said something needs to be done with the city’s sewer system, considering population growth and recent overflows.

   “If they’re not going to get it by taxes, they’re going to have to do it some other way,” he said. “Here, look at this system. It’s outdated. It needs to be upgraded. We need it. We need it bad.”

   Over at the beach, Bob and Char DeYoung were walking along the water, on vacation from the Grand Rapids area to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary. Char, 45, thinks that businesses also should be held accountable — required to provide holding ponds and treatment facilities for some of the wastewater they generate.

   “I don’t know enough about this but anything they can do to clean up the water would be good,” she said.

   Bob nodded, and he said: “I’m sure not for pollution.” Ann Solak and a pal jogged past, along the shoreline, a trip they take three or more times a week. Other days, Solak canoes the bay.

   “I’m an avid water person, and I respect the bay and rivers,” the 37-year-old Traverse City secretary said. “I am so tired of hearing about this water being contaminated.”

   Her friend stretched nearby, anxious to resume the run, and before jogging off toward the Boardman River, said, “If we don’t take care of it now, it won’t be able to take care of us. We all rely on it.”

   The Clinch Park Zoo is open on these fall days, free to local residents, and it was filled with second-graders on a field trip from Charlevoix. Behind the zoo, a crane pulled pilings from the bay, continuing work on a new marina. A handful of children clustered in front of the otter tank, watching the playful animals swim a sleek underwater ballet.

   “I’ve been to the beaches this summer and they weren’t looking too good,” said parent-chaperone Bo Eubanks, 30, a building framer in Charlevoix.” There was algae building up.”

   Like others, he said something needs to be done.

   “The water’s important, especially with Lake Michigan, for the kids — and for all of us.”


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