For Rebecca Esselman, the mission is clear even if there isn’t a big spotlight on her work.
Her goal is to protect the Huron River and its environs, a diverse 900 square miles of land that includes farmland, urban centers, suburban sprawl and intact forest. The river itself runs for 125 miles before emptying into Lake Erie.
Esselman, a 20-year conservation veteran, is executive director of the nonprofit Huron River Watershed Council. It’s one of approximately 28 watershed groups according to the Michigan Water Environment Association, doing conservation work such as dam removal, habitat restoration and support of municipalities with expertise.
Great Lakes Now Senior Correspondent Gary Wilson recently talked with Esselman on a range of topics, including the unique role watershed councils play in conservation of water and land across municipal boundaries.
Esselman explained the status of PFAS, per and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as the Forever Chemicals, in the Huron River and Michigan’s recent lack of transparency in alerting citizens about PFAS.
Esselman also addressed the failure of the state of Michigan over decades to prevent chemical pollution, leaving it in a perpetual state of having to react.
The interview was recorded, transcribed and edited for clarity and length.
Great Lakes Now: Michigan is home to 86 major watersheds and there are multiple organizations – watershed councils – advocating on their behalf. What role do groups like yours play in protecting the state’s inland waters and ultimately the Great Lakes?
Rebecca Esselman: Watershed councils have a unique role to play in water resource management. Most are nonprofit organizations, and as such we do not have regulatory or legal authority.
But, if you think about water, it has no regard for city, state and county lines. Watershed councils manage resources across those jurisdictional boundaries. The other thing we bring to the table is that we have deep expertise on the Huron River itself and what it needs to be healthy.
We typically play roles like coordinating and building partnerships and working across municipal boundaries. We’re a big convener, and we also work to increase the capacity of our residents, local elected officials and staff that work for counties, towns and villages. That helps enable them to take action to protect our rivers, lakes and groundwater. It’s an essential role that is left unfilled by our current government system.
GLN: Land use in the Huron River watershed encompasses remote areas, farmland, urban and industrial centers and sprawling suburbs. What are the challenges of working to protect waterways within this diverse range of land uses?
RE: The Huron River watershed is really diverse in our land use types. The watershed is 900 square miles located in southeast Michigan.
Our watershed encompasses parts of Oakland County and travels through towns like Milford, Brighton, Chelsea, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and empties into Lake Erie near Flat Rock. There are 650,000 residents in the watershed, and we have everything from low-density residential to agriculture, and there’s quite a bit of intact forest, which is beneficial for water quality.
Closer to the Detroit metropolitan area we are dealing with urban issues. This means we are employing different strategies and making different friends to make sure that no matter what the setting is, we are working with partners to protect the Huron River. And the diversity keeps our work exciting.
GLN: The Huron River watershed is home to multiple sites contaminated with PFAS. “Do Not Eat” fish advisories have been and are prevalent. What is the current status of PFAS in the Huron River watershed?
RE: The Huron River is a unique PFAS story. We’re hearing tragic stories around PFAS chemical contamination throughout the United States and the Great Lakes region. Most often it’s a groundwater contamination that’s affecting drinking water wells and nearby homeowners.
The Huron River is unique in that it is one of the few surface drinking water sources in Michigan that’s not a Great Lake. Ann Arbor and some of the surrounding areas get their drinking water from the Huron River.
When PFAS was found in our surface water, there were extra alarm bells raised because the high levels of PFAS end up in our fish, therefore we have the “do not eat” fish advisories. But it’s also in our drinking water source. The response here has been significant because of that added factor. When PFAS was discovered in the Huron River there were no state or federal regulations on any PFAS chemicals. Currently the state of Michigan, who has been a leader on this, has passed drinking water standards for seven PFAS chemicals.
The status is we have these regulations in place, but what’s important to know about PFAS is that it’s not a single chemical. It’s a class of chemicals and when I say a class of chemical, I’m talking about upwards of 5,000 different PFAS. So while we have some of the strongest drinking water regulations in the country, we really have a long way to go to protect our wildlife and people from the harmful effects of PFAS.
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GLN: Various media outlets have reported gaps between when Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy discovers the potential of PFAS in an area and when the public is notified. The agency has defended the reporting gap saying that it doesn’t report until it has definitive information.
Isn’t that the type of behavior that contributed to the Flint water crisis? Wouldn’t it be better if people were notified of the potential risks so they could make their own best decisions?
RE: It would be better, and I would say this is a very active area of conversation between advocates and the state, and I hope that we can do better in the future than what is happening now.
Unfortunately, it took the Traverse City example to bring this to light pertaining to PFAS, but as you mentioned, this is something we’ve seen in the past and it’s disheartening to see again. I will say that the state is engaging with the public, with entities like ours and with local governments. There’s been a lot of positive work that those groups have been able to achieve around this issue. But this one is particularly problematic and needs attention.
GLN: Michigan has a long history of being reactive to chemical pollution going back to the PBB crisis in the 1970s and now PFAS. Why can’t we learn from the past and enact laws and regulations that are preventive instead of having to react to a crisis?
RE: Now you’re getting at the crux of the problem. That’s a good question, and I wish I had the answer to it.
We should never be rolling the dice on public health or spending taxpayer dollars to clean up contamination while we have corporations profiting from the manufacture and use of these harmful chemicals.
We need to shift the burden of proof of safety of these chemicals and the products they’re used in to the front end of the equation. What we do is bring these products to market and they are spread throughout our environment, and decades down the line we learn that they’re harmful. This is again where it comes back to placing the burden of proof of safety on the manufacturers, and the federal government really has a role here.
We have seen this same story over and over again. We’ve had DDT and PCBs, and my biggest concern is that for every chemical we’ve discovered that’s harmful in our environment, there are dozens more that are less talked about or are undiscovered yet.
GLN: HRWC shares its expertise with most of the 67 government entities – cities and townships – in the watershed. In addition to providing traditional services like public safety, they now have to cope with issues like PFAS and climate change. What’s your best advice to these municipal executives on how to adapt to competing priorities?
RE: Leverage community partnerships. You see a lot of variability with capacity at the local government level to address emerging issues related to the environment. This is another role that watershed councils and other nonprofit organizations play. We partner with our local governments to increase the capacity to meet the needs of the community. For example, HRWC works with our cities and towns to address stormwater runoff by doing public education, water quality monitoring and meeting other responsibilities required by the State.
Time is one thing. Money is the other. This is a real constraint. Local governments can take advantage of innovative funding programs like state revolving fund loans and establishing stormwater utilities in lieu of raising taxes to pay for much needed work. I also suggest supporting infrastructure bills at the state and federal levels and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that brings critical dollars to water issues in the region.
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Featured image: Rebecca Esselman (Photo: Kari Paine, courtesy of the Huron River Watershed Council)