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Michigan seeking $1 billion for sewer fix
With beach closings common, ballot measure's passage seen as likely
Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

posted 11/05/2002

Frustrated by their own rash of beach closings on inland lakes as well as along the Lake Michigan shoreline, Michigan conservationists hope state voters will approve a referendum measure Tuesday to raise $1 billion over the next decade to fix the state's aging sewer systems.

"It's a terrible problem," said Dan Farough of the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club. "It's taken a long time for the political pressure to become what it is -- that Michigan's Republican-controlled Senate and House decided it would be a good idea to back this."

James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said the proposal made it to the ballot after being approved by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature, and it has the backing of both major party candidates for governor.

Now a simple majority of voters must also approve it, something Clift predicts will happen. He said the most recent poll shows that the measure has about a 60% voter approval rating.

The money would be borrowed over at least 10 years, Clift said. It will be repaid through the state's general fund.

"There is broad support for it from both parties," Clift said. "The people in Michigan understand the importance of protecting the Great Lakes."

The fund will provide low-interest loans to communities to upgrade outdated sewer systems, many of which were built three or four decades ago.

Conservationists outside the state are keeping a keen eye on the issue.

Laurel O'Sullivan, staff attorney for the Chicago-based Lake Michigan Federation, said the plan "is something to think about" for other Great Lakes states.

Nationally, beach closings because of pollution have doubled in recent years. Most believe the jump is caused, at least in part, by increased water-quality monitoring.

That doesn't diminish the problem.

Beach closings plagued eastern Wisconsin's Lake Michigan shoreline late this summer. For the first time in memory, beaches all over Door County were shut down because of high levels of E. coli. Nobody knows the source of the contamination, though many pointed to faulty private septic systems and holding tanks as likely culprits.

Closings along the lake's shoreline also stretched down to Milwaukee, where the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has a history of releasing sewage during heavy storms.

But not everybody thinks borrowing a big chunk of money is the best solution.

"A billion dollars is a lot of money to throw around," said Diane Katz, of the Midland, Mich.-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which advocates free-market solutions to public policy issues.

"I'm not arguing we don't need new sewer (systems) and clean water. I'm arguing this is not the most effective or efficient method to get it," she said.

Katz said the communities that have problem sewer systems, not state taxpayers in general, should be responsible for fixing the systems.

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