When it comes to water regulation, much of the focus has been on waters of the United States and “contaminated” water from a private property (industry, agriculture, etc.) reaching a “defined” US water. The debate of that definition has raged for decades and continues with the recent publishing of the Navigable Waters Protection Rule. Increasingly, however, the concern is reversed and is about a water of the US reaching private property. Excess water, due to a variety of factors, seems to be affecting our lives with increased frequency.
More and more news stories highlight situations of too much water, be it increased lake levels, eroding shorelines, flooding, etc. Several factors are at play, and to some extent, we discussed this in an earlier blog. Changing weather patterns (short term or long term), increased urbanization, geology, and aging infrastructure all play a role in the complex dynamics.
In Michigan, where I live, we have seen several significant flooding events. In the Detroit metropolitan area where there are less permeable surfaces, unusually-heavy rains in recent years have caused significant damage to homes and businesses.
Lake Levels and Wind
The Great Lakes are currently higher than in the recent past. On the east side of the state where Lake Huron, Lake Saint Clair, the Rouge River, and Lake Erie come together, they have been dealing with high water levels (as are all the Great Lakes) and are now plagued by unusual easterly winds. These easterly winds push the high water onto the shoreline. Where this shoreline lies in urban areas with developments, flooding can cause significant damage. Shoreline erosion in Lake Michigan due to high lake levels has resulted in entire homes being undercut and dropping into the lake.
Midland Flooding and Dam Failure
Just in the past few days, heavy rains from a low-pressure front “parked” over our area put tremendous pressures on old dams in the Midland, Michigan, area. Two dams failed, and the resulting flooding caused evacuations in surrounding communities.
The National Weather Service in Detroit issued this statement, “A Flood Warning is in effect along the Tittabawassee River in Midland Co. due to the failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams. The gauge site at Midland exceeded the previous record stage of 33.89’ at approximately 5:30 am. Life-threatening flooding continues today.”
Impact on Industry
Dow, located in Midland, posted an announcement on social media that said, in part, “Dow has activated its local emergency operations center and is implementing its flood preparedness plan which includes the safe shutdown of operating units on site.”
Anytime there is flooding in an area where industry is located, there is concern over chemical storage (tanks, drums, etc.). Spilling of chemical products or waste can be a significant environmental concern. While Dow has a plan to implement, how many other industries are prepared for such an event?
Rise and Fall Patterns
Predicting future weather patterns is difficult at best. Gathering and using past data may provide some insight.
The Tip of The Mitt Watershed Council states, “By studying beach ridges along Lake Michigan, as well as radiocarbon dating of soil core samples, scientists have developed a 4,700 year record of Lake Michigan-Huron water levels. From analyzing this data (sic), scientists identified a general rise and fall cycle that lasts approximately 120-200 years. They also learned that there is a shorter-term fluctuation from 29-38 years (averaging about 32 years) that occurs within the longer cycle.”
In the same article by the Watershed Council, it states, “Since lake levels have been recorded, there has been a general rise and fall of lake levels. However, there is no discernible cycle based upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers period of records from 1918-2011.”
In our Litigating Water blog, Dr. Michael Sklash provides some insight on how complicated the issue of flooding can be. “Before the mid-1970s, the general thought was flooding was all related to rain or snowmelt. Isotopic investigations have since shown that groundwater discharge during storm and snowmelt events is a very important contributor to flooding. This discovery has helped to explain the chemistry (such as acid rain runoff and legacy nitrate issues) of flooding streams.”
EPA and EGLE Concerns about Water Levels
Regardless of whether we are experiencing a short or long-term change in water levels, companies that hold environmental permits or use and store chemicals should have a plan in place to respond to one of these flooding events.
Regulatory agencies seem to have increased concerns about the risks associated with increased rain and flooding. On their Green Infrastructure webpage, the Environmental Protection Agency says, “Heavy downpours have increased in frequency and intensity worldwide in the last 50 years. They are expected to become more frequent and intense as global temperatures continue to rise. As a result, the risk of flooding is likely to increase dramatically across the United States.”
Earlier this year (January 16, 2020), the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy issued an announcement to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit holders. They state, in part, “To prepare for the predicted increasing water levels in 2020, we are asking all permittees to complete a vulnerability analysis to minimize potential impacts.”
Future Water Management
Weather, climate, property development, and infrastructure all play a significant role in this current challenge of too much water. While I agree with Yogi Berra that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” water management will likely play an increasingly-important role in environmental management plans, required or not.
If you need help with an environmental permit, plan, or perhaps with trying to address an excess water issue, we may be able to help you. Please contact me if you would like to have a discussion.